SpaceX returns to flight, sending satellites into orbit

SpaceX successfully launches its first rocket since September explosion

A SpaceX Falcon rocket blasted off from California on Saturday, returning the company to flight for the first time since a fiery launchpad explosion in September. The 230-foot (70-meter) rocket launched from VandenbergAir Force Base at 9:54 a.m. PST (1754 GMT) to deliver 10 satellites into orbit for Iridium Communications Inc.

"It's a clean sweep – 10 for 10," SpaceX launch commentator John Insprucker said after the satellites were released. SpaceX founder and entrepreneur Elon Musk's ambitious flight plans had been grounded since the Sept. 1 explosion during fueling ahead of a pre-flight test in Florida.

About 10 minutes after Saturday's launch, the first stage of the rocket, which had separated from the rest of craft, successfully touched down on a platform in the Pacific Ocean, a feat previously accomplished by four other returning Falcon rockets. SpaceX intends to reuse its rockets to cut costs.

"Rocket is stable," Musk posted on Twitter. "Mission looks good."

Two other returning Falcon boosters landed on the ground.

The mission tested changes implemented by SpaceExploration Technologies Corp, known as SpaceX, since the launchpad explosion.

Accident investigators determined that a canister of helium burst inside the rocket's second-stage liquid oxygen tank, triggering the explosion. The canister is being redesigned, but until then SpaceX is addressing the issue by modifying its fueling procedures.

The explosion destroyed a $62 million SpaceX booster and a$200 million Israeli communications satellite that it was to be put into orbit two days later.

The accident clouded the company's aggressive agenda, which includes beginning to ferry U.S. astronauts into space next year, when it also plans to make its first voyage to Mars.

Saturday's flight begins to clear a logjam of more than 70 planned missions, worth more than $10 billion, involving SpaceX Falcon rockets, which last flew in August, SpaceX said.

The launch is the first in a seven-flight contract with Iridium worth $468.1 million, company spokeswoman Diane Hockenberry said.

SpaceX aims to launch 27 rockets in 2017, more than triple the eight flights the privately held firm managed in 2016,according to a report on Friday in the Wall Street Journal.

In addition to its dozens of commercial customers, SpaceX is one of two companies hired by NASA to fly cargo to the International Space Station.

The company's 2017 agenda includes the debut launch of a heavy-lift booster, flying its first reused rocket and repairing the Florida launchpad damaged in the explosion.

© SpaceX. In this Jan. 14, 2017, photo released by SpaceX, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with 10 Iridium NEXT communications satellites lifts off from launch complex 40 at Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

SpaceX Resumes Rocket Launches by Lofting Cluster of Iridium Satellites

A Space Exploration Technologies Corp. rocket successfully blasted 10 commercial satellites into orbit Saturday, in a rebound from a catastrophic accident more than four months ago that stunned the aerospace industry, grounded the company’s fleet of boosters and raised doubts about its reliability as a launch provider.

The trouble-free liftoff from central California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base just before 10 a.m. local time marked an important, high-stakes pivot for entrepreneur Elon Musk’s closely held company. SpaceX, as it is commonly called, is seeking to shore up confidence of commercial and U.S. government customers in its low-cost approach to providing space transportation.

Following three postponements in recent weeks for technical or weather reasons, the 230-foot Falcon 9 rocket rose through clear skies carrying a cluster of next-generation spacecraft intended to start revitalizing Iridium Communications Inc.’s aging satellite constellation.

To top it off, SpaceX once again landed the lower part of the rocket back on a floating platform—this time in the Pacific Ocean. That return landing is part of a goal to save money by reusing major components in multiple launches.

The flight was uneventful from start to finish, offering scant drama even when the time came to release the Iridium satellites, one by one, from a specially designed dispenser. Communication problems hampered initial verification of satellite deployment, but about an hour and 17 minutes after launch SpaceX’s webcast confirmed all 10 were safely in their proper position.

Iridium’s spacecraft originally were slated to go up last summer, leaving company executives and customers fretting about delays and uncertainty. Last month, however, Iridium Chief Executive Matt Desch said in an interview that the company never looked into alternatives because SpaceX’s rivals were about twice as expensive.

Amid celebratory whoops from SpaceX officials in mission control in Hawthorne, Calif., the rocket’s main engine cut off and the second-stage engine took over as designed about two minutes and 40 seconds into the flight.

Saturday’s blastoff was closely watched by many industry officials because it followed the September explosion of an unmanned Falcon 9 rocket during routine launchpad tests in Florida. Fourteen months earlier, in June 2015, a cargo mission destined for the international space station ended in a fireball less than three minutes after blastoff. Both times, investigators determined the cause primarily stemmed from unintended consequences of the novel way SpaceX designs, builds and operates rockets.

Those accidents sparked questions about continuing to develop and phase in new booster variants even as the company sought to ramp up launch tempo to reduce a bulging backlog of delayed missions. Company leaders now appear focused on protecting against the downside of such ambitious dual goals.

Industry officials and space experts contend introducing a steady stream of design changes can erode safety. Legacy rocket makers including Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. historically have stuck with flight-proven technologies for many years or even decades, convinced that is the best strategy for avoiding accidents.

With SpaceX making a lot of changes simultaneously, even the smallest changes can have profound consequences on rocket reliability, said Howard McCurdy, an American University professor and expert on space hardware.

But Mr. Musk’s team of mostly young engineers counter that their more-flexible, contrarian practices promote efficiency, lower costs and in the end, enhance reliability. “Innovation often leads you to be more safe,” said Garrett Reisman, a former astronaut and senior SpaceX manager.

During Saturday’s countdown—and launch at a precisely the designated instant—fuel, oxidant and helium were loaded more slowly than in some previous launches, reflecting lessons learned from the 2016 launchpad accident.

Despite its latest success, SpaceX is bound to stay embroiled in those conflicting arguments as it pushes ahead with plans to carry National Aeronautics and Space Administration astronauts into orbit before the end of the decade.

Saturday’s launch also represents another sharp turnaround for Mr. Musk and his company, which almost collapsed in its infancy because fledgling, smaller rockets suffered a number of failures. But since 2008, SpaceX has garnered billions of dollars in NASA contracts to become the federal government’s most prominent champion of commercial space ventures.

With NASA’s blessing, the company from the start reduced costs and sped up production partly by cutting back traditional quality-control checks and inspections of parts from subcontractors.

SpaceX also devised a system to rely on supercooled fuel to assure longer engine burns. The aim is to increase reserves of liquid oxidants needed to execute maneuvers to return the main part of a booster back to Earth.

It took repeated attempts before SpaceX initially managed to land a spent lower stage on a floating platform. Despite the stumbles, industry officials praised Mr. Musk’s bravado and persistence. Before SpaceX pulled off its first landing, Mark Dankberg, chairman and chief executive of SpaceX customer and satellite-services provider ViaSat Inc., said: “They’re doing things about which most people would say, ‘You can’t do that.’”

The 2015 accident occurred when a faulty structural part supplied by a subcontractor gave way deep inside the upper stage of a Falcon 9. Almost immediately, there was a flurry of second-guessing inside and outside the company about inadequate quality-control checks. The explosion also prompted senior NASA officials to send SpaceX a letter expressing concerns about management practices and production safeguards.

Gwynne Shotwell, the company’s president and chief operating officer, said the 2015 accident served as a catalyst to revamp overall safety practices. “Every engineer in the company is having a buddy check their work” to identify potential shortcomings, she said at the time.

On its next mission in December 2015, SpaceX introduced a significantly different and more-capable Falcon 9, featuring a longer main stage, upgraded engines and the first operational use of supercooled propellants. Overall, it had 30% more power.

But internal financial documents from that period reviewed by The Wall Street Journal underscore SpaceX’s operational challenges and heavy reliance on NASA dollars. They show the company’s total NASA contracts for cargo delivery to orbit swelled by about $2.2 billion.

By the beginning of 2016, according to the documents, federal government business accounted for about 70% of all company contracts.

Looking ahead, the documents projected operating income averaging 7% of revenue from 2016 to 2019.

SpaceX has declined to comment on the documents.

For now, projections of huge price cuts from reusing launchers remain only promises. So far, SpaceX has announced lowering launch prices for such missions by about 10%, and the internal company documents anticipate reusable rockets will have only a marginal positive impact on SpaceX’s profitability over the next few years.

Mr. Musk hasn’t fully realized the potential of reusable boosters, Steve Jurvetson, a SpaceX investor and prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist, said at a space conference in Long Beach, Calif., last fall.

SpaceX returns to flight with successful launch

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted 10 next-generation Iridium telephone satellites into orbit Saturday, a successful return to fight that should help restore confidence in the low-cost booster after a devastating launch pad explosion last September.

That dramatic conflagration likely was caused by super-cold oxygen in the booster’s second stage that worked its way beneath the carbon fiber outer skin of a high pressure helium tank, triggering the tank’s rupture and the near-instant destruction of the rocket and its $200 million satellite payload.

For Saturday’s flight, SpaceX engineers changed a variety of pre-launch procedures, loading RP-1 kerosene fuel and liquid oxygen earlier in the countdown than before to slightly raise temperatures around the helium tanks. The technique was used for an engine test firing earlier this month and went off without a hitch Saturday.

After brief concern about winds and a boat in the offshore danger zone, the slender 229-foot-tall rocket’s nine first stage engines thundered to life at 9:54 a.m. PST (GMT-8), throttled up to full power and majestically pushed the booster away from its seaside launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base northwest of Los Angeles.

Trailing a brilliant tongue of fiery exhaust, the Falcon 9 quickly arced away on a southerly trajectory as it climbed out of the dense lower atmosphere, its Merlin 1D engines generating a combined 1.5 million pounds of thrust.

The first stage engines shut down about two-and-a-half minutes after launch. The stage then fell away and the single engine powering the Falcon 9’s second stage took over, its nozzle glowing bright red against the limb of the Earth, generating 210,000 pounds of thrust to continue the climb to space.

The first stage, meanwhile, flipped around and restarted three of its engines to reduce forward velocity and begin a descent to a SpaceX droneship stationed several hundred miles south of Vandenberg. Recovering stages for eventual refurbishment and reuse is a major element in company founder Elon Musk’s ongoing drive to reduce launch costs.

After a second engine firing to slow the booster still more for atmospheric entry, the stage plummeted tail first toward the Pacific Ocean, restarted a single engine, deployed four landing legs and settled to a picture-perfect touchdown on the droneship Just Read the Instructions.

It was the company’s seventh successful landing in 12 attempts, its fifth on a droneship and the first for a Falcon 9 launched from Vandenberg.

But as with all Falcon 9 flights, the landing was a strictly secondary objective. The primary goal was to boost the 10 Iridium NEXT satellite telephone relay stations into orbit and the Falcon 9 did just that.

The second stage completed the first of two burns just over nine minutes after liftoff. A short three-second burn was executed 43 minutes later to complete the climb to an initial 488-mile-high orbit tilted 86.4 degrees to the equator.

Seven minutes after that, the 10 Iridium NEXT satellites were released in sequence from a dispenser mounted atop the second stage, the first batch in a planned 72-satellite network that will replace the company’s current fleet of aging low-Earth-orbit mobile voice and data relay stations.

The complex satellite-by-satellite swap-out will allow Iridium to retire first-generation relay stations that have operated long past their design life, replacing them with upgraded, more powerful spacecraft and expanding the company’s capabilities in an increasingly competitive commercial space operations environment.

“Frankly, it means our future, because we have to replace this network anyway,” Iridium CEO Matthew Desch said in an interview with CBS News last year. “I often think of it as one of the biggest tech refreshes in the world right now, with a new $3 billion constellation.”

Altogether, Iridium is paying SpaceX upwards of $500 million for seven Falcon 9 launches to boost 70 Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit, 10 at a time, over the next year or so. Two more will be launched aboard a different rocket.

“The new satellites are a lot more powerful, a lot more processing power, they’ve got a lot more memory, a lot more capacity, they actually expand our ability to support customers,” Desch said. And, he added, “they’re easier to operate.”

Engineers will spend three months testing each new satellite and carrying out a satellite-by-satellite swap-out, moving a new spacecraft into position near the vehicle it’s replacing and switching service from one to the other.

The Iridium network requires 66 satellites to provide global coverage, but the company plans to launch 15 in-orbit spares to provide immediate backup in case of an in-orbit malfunction and to serve as an insurance policy of sorts in the event of a launch failure.

As important as the Falcon 9 launching was to Iridium, it was even more important for SpaceX after an in-flight failure in June 2015 and the dramatic on-pad explosion Sept. 1 at Cape Canaveral.

The Falcon 9’s record of two failures in 29 rockets stands in contrast to the record of its major U.S. competitor, United Launch Alliance, which has launched 102 more expensive Atlas 5s and Delta 4s without a single failure. The European consortium Arianespace has successfully launched more than 75 Ariane 5s in a row.

But SpaceX enjoys widespread support in the satellite industry, in large part because of the Falcon 9’s innovative design and relatively low cost. With a list price of $60 million per booster, a Falcon 9 is roughly half the cost of rockets offered by its major competitors.

But lower costs cannot offset significantly higher risk, and industry analysts say SpaceX needs a string of successful flights to maintain its long-range goal of capturing a major share of the commercial launch market.

With a successful return to flight Saturday, SpaceX will now focus on working off a backlog of delayed payloads, launching a commercial communications satellite from Cape Canaveral later this month and a space station resupply mission in February. The first flight of a “used” Falcon 9 first stage is expected in the next few months.

Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president and CEO, said the company currently has about 70 flights on its manifest, a backlog valued at some $10 billion.

The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that SpaceX lost $260 million in the wake of the 2015 in-flight failure, launching just six missions that year instead of 12 that were originally planned.

It’s not known what impact the September failure might have on the company’s bottom line or how delays will ripple through its manifest. SpaceX launched eight flights in 2016 and was forced to delay at least seven more.

But Shotwell is optimistic, saying earlier this week that no customers have abandoned SpaceX. Bret Johnsen, SpaceX chief financial officer, said in a statement the company continues to enjoy “strong customer relationships.”

“Furthermore,” he said, “with over $1 billion in cash reserves and no debt, the company is in a financially strong position and is well positioned for future growth.”

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