SpaceX Achieves Three-for-Three, With Nocturnal Launch of Two Communications Satellites

For the third time in 2015, a SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 streaks into the Florida sky. Sunday night's mission successfully delivered two payloads into Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). Photo Credit: John Studwell/AmericaSpace

For the third time in 2015, a SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 streaks into the Florida sky. Sunday night’s mission successfully delivered two payloads into Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). Photo Credit: John Studwell/AmericaSpace

SpaceX has triumphantly accomplished “Three for Three,” delivering a third mission to space in as many months, as the Hawthorne, Calif.-based launch operator successfully boosted the Eutelsat 115 West B and Asia Broadcasting Satellite (ABS)-3A communications satellites to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). Liftoff took place on time at 10:50 p.m. EST on Sunday, 1 March. Thus continues a spectacular 2015 for SpaceX, which has already despatched the latest Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) Dragon cargo ship into low-Earth orbit, bound for the International Space Station (ISS) and the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) on a journey to the L1 Lagrange Point, more than 930,000 miles (1.5 million km) beyond Earth. Although the company has delivered three missions within three months previously—launching the AsiaSat-8, CRS-4 Dragon, and AsiaSat-6 payloads in a seven-week period, last summer—this is the first time it has boosted three back-to-back payloads into quite different orbits and onto quite different trajectories. It also marks SpaceX’s third launch in just 50 days.

Following a successful Static Fire Test of its nine Merlin 1D first-stage engines on Wednesday, 25 February, out at Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., the two-stage Falcon 9 v1.1 booster was returned to a horizontal configuration for the installation of its primary payloads. It was returned to the pad on Saturday for final processing. Although this was SpaceX’s first mission to carry two satellites to GTO—as noted in AmericaSpace’s preview article—the rocket used a standard 43-foot-long (13.1-meter) Payload Fairing (PLF), because Eutelsat 115 West B and ABS-3A both utilize Boeing’s new 702SP (“Small Platform”) satellite bus. This allows them to be “conjoined,” one atop the other, with no need for a connecting mechanism, and considered as a singular payload, thereby simplifying the task of the launch provider.

Photo Credit: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace

Photo Credit: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace

With the Florida weather posing a 70 percent likelihood of acceptable conditions at T-0 on Sunday, SpaceX teams pressed ahead with their opening launch attempt, threatened by partly or mostly cloudy skies, a 30 percent chance of rain, and a 10 percent probability of lightning. According to the 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, the presence of brisk winds and attendant cloud cover and the effects of an earlier cold front were expected to create a primary risk from lingering thick clouds and cumulus clouds associated with rain showers. However, it was noted that conditions were expected to improve to 80 percent favorable in the event of a scrub and 24-hour turnaround. “On Monday, winds remain light and turn more southeasterly, keeping a slight risk for a coastal shower,” it was explained, “but less upper-level clouds as ridging moves in aloft.”

Earlier today (Sunday), the Falcon 9 v1.1 was fueled with liquid oxygen and a highly refined form of rocket-grade kerosene, known as “RP-1.” The cryogenic nature of the oxygen—whose liquid state exists within a temperature range from -221.54 degrees Celsius (-368.77 degrees Fahrenheit) to -182.96 degrees Celsius (-297.33 degrees Fahrenheit)—requires the booster’s fuel lines of the engines to be chilled, in order to avoid thermally shocking or fracturing them. By this time, SpaceX had slightly adjusted the T-0 time to 10:50 p.m. EST, with Sunday’s “launch window” running for 45 minutes and closing at 11:35 p.m.

All propellants were fully loaded within one hour, and at 10:37 p.m., the countdown passed its final “Go/No-Go” polling point of all stations at T-13 minutes. Weather conditions had improved to 90-percent “Go,” with all stations reporting their status as “Green.” The Terminal Countdown got underway at T-10 minutes, during which time the Merlin 1D engines were chilled, ahead of their ignition sequence. All external power utilities from the Ground Support Equipment (GSE) were disconnected, and at 10:45 p.m. the roughly 90-second process of retracting the “strongback” from the vehicle occurred. The Flight Termination System (FTS)—tasked with destroying the Falcon 9 v1.1 in the event of a major accident during ascent—was placed onto internal power and armed. By T-2 minutes and 15 seconds, the first stage propellant tanks attained flight pressure, after which the engines were purged with gaseous nitrogen, and at T-60 seconds the SLC-40 complex’s “Niagara” deluge system of 53 nozzles came to life, flooding the pad surface and flame trench with 30,000 gallons (113,500 liters) of water, per minute, to suppress acoustic energy radiating from the engine exhausts.

At T-3 seconds, the nine Merlin 1D engines roared to life, ramping up to a combined thrust of 1.3 million pounds (590,000 kg). Following computer-commanded health checks, the stack was released from SLC-40 to begin SpaceX’s third flight within the first three months of 2015, and its third overall mission in just 50 days. Although not a personal-best-beater—for the AsiaSat-8, CRS-4 Dragon, and AsiaSat-6 payloads all flew within a 47-day period in August-September 2014—this is an impressive indicator of the rapidly maturing nature of Falcon 9 v1.1 operations.

Rising on a column of dazzling orange flame, the third Falcon 9 v1.1 of 2015 takes flight, delivering SpaceX's first dual-satellite payload to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). Photo Credit: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace

Rising on a column of dazzling orange flame, the third Falcon 9 v1.1 of 2015 takes flight, delivering SpaceX’s first dual-satellite payload to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). Photo Credit: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace

Immediately after clearing the tower, the booster executed a combined pitch, roll, and yaw program maneuver to establish itself onto the proper flight azimuth to deliver the Eutelsat/ABS payload stack into space. Eighty seconds into the climb uphill, the vehicle exceeded the speed of sound and experienced a period of maximum aerodynamic duress—colloquially dubbed “Max Q”—on its airframe. At about this time, the Merlin 1D Vacuum engine of the second stage underwent a chill-down protocol, ahead of its own ignition later in the ascent. At 10:52 p.m., 130 seconds after liftoff, two of the first-stage engines throttled back, in order to reduce the rate of acceleration at the point of Main Engine Cutoff (MECO). Finally at T+2 minutes and 58 seconds, the seven remaining engines shut down, and, a few seconds later, the first stage separated from the rapidly ascending vehicle.

Unlike January’s attempt to soft-land the Falcon 9 v1.1 first stage on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) in the Atlantic Ocean—which resulted in the hardware reaching the deck, but impacting at a 45-degree angle and exploding—the Eutelsat/ABS mission was not intended to perform such a feat. The delivery of payloads to a geostationary altitude of approximately 22,300 miles (35,900 km) requires the maximum performance of the booster, and both the Elsbeth III and Go Quest support vessels for ASDS operations remained in the Port of Jacksonville for this mission.

With the first stage gone, the turn then came for the Falcon 9 v1.1’s restartable second stage, whose Merlin 1D Vacuum engine—with a maximum thrust of 180,000 pounds (81,600 kg)—came to life to support two discrete “burns,” then set the Eutelsat/ABS stack free about a half-hour after leaving the Cape. The first burn kicked off at about T+3 minutes and 10 seconds, firing for close to six minutes to establish the payloads in a “parking orbit.” During this time, the 43-foot-long (13.1-meter) Payload Fairing (PLF) was pneumatically jettisoned, exposing the satellites to the space environment for the first time, and the Merlin 1D Vacuum was shut down about nine minutes after launch.

The combo then “coasted” for a further 16 minutes, ahead of the second burn at T+25 minutes, which ran for about 60 seconds, to position the payloads for separation. ABS-3A was first to depart the second stage at about T+30 minutes, at 11:20:10 p.m. EST, after which the second stage performed a “Reorientation Between Separation Events,” prior to the departure of Eutelsat 115 West B at T+35 minutes, at 11:25:10 p.m. EST.

Unusual perspective of propellants within the tanks of the Falcon 9 v1.1, captured by a video feed during ascent. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Unusual perspective of propellants within the tanks of the Falcon 9 v1.1, captured by a video feed during ascent. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Scheduled to operate for up to 15 years at an orbital position of 114.9 degrees West longitude, Eutelsat 115 West B was previously designated “SatMex-7,” until the takeover of Satelites Mexicanos by Eutelsat in March 2014. In keeping with its new satellite-naming system, Eutelsat—the European Telecommunications Satellite Organisation, headquartered in Paris, France—identified the satellite with a number to describe its orbital position and a letter to indicate its order of arrival at that position. When operational, Eutelsat 115 West B will provide a C-band “Pan-American Beam” for coverage of Alaska, western Canada, the contiguous United States, Mexico, Latin America, and the north-western regions of South America, as well as multiple Ku-band beams for Mexico and its environs, the majority of South America not covered by its C-band counterpart, and the entire United States—with the exception of Florida—and Canada. These beams will offer direct-to-home television, broadband, cellular backhaul, and social connectivity. Built by Boeing Defense & Space, the satellite is expected to provide the Americas with a new capacity to attend strategic markets serving high-growth applications in video, data, mobility, and government, as well as generally strengthening Eutelsat’s “footprint” in the area with optimized regional beams.

Founded in 1977, Eutelsat was originally an Inter-Governmental Organization (IGO) to develop a satellite communications infrastructure for western Europe. Its first satellite, Eutelsat 1-F1—also designated the European Communications Satellite (ECS)-1—was launched atop an Ariane 1 booster from Kourou, French Guiana, in June 1983, and the organization subsequently expanded to cover not only western Europe, but also central and eastern Europe in the years surrounding the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as the Middle East, Africa, and large parts of Asia and the Americas. From the mid-1990s, Eutelsat was broadcasting direct-to-home television services for the first time to Europe, thanks to its Hot Bird satellite network, and became a private company in July 2001.

The ABS-3A and Eutelsat 115 West B satellites being readied for their 1 March launch attempt atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Photo Credit: Boeing

The ABS-3A and Eutelsat 115 West B satellites being readied for their 1 March launch attempt atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Photo Credit: Boeing

Based upon Boeing’s new BSS-702SP (“Small Platform”) spacecraft “bus,” both Eutelsat 115 West B and ABS-3A rely upon an all-electric propulsion system, thereby freeing up volume for payloads and reducing overall mass by eliminating the need for a chemical propulsion apparatus. The development of the bus—which provides a payload power range from 3-8 kilowatts—was inaugurated in 2012 and after completing its Critical Design Review (CDR) the following year, production got underway and presently four satellites are currently scheduled to utilize the 702SP, with Eutelsat 115 West B and ABS-3A expected to mark its first customers to actually reach orbit. Both spacecraft buses were built at Boeing’s Satellite Development Center in El Segundo, Calif.

Measuring 15 feet (4.6 meters) tall and 7 feet (2.1 meters) in diameter and weighing about 3,970 pounds (1,800 kg) at launch, the cylindrical 702SP will be powered by twin solar arrays and lithium-ion batteries and stabilized by means of a state-of-the-art attitude-determination and control system with star trackers, Earth sensors, and reaction wheels. Their relatively low mass enables two of them to fly atop one booster, thus resulting in a 20 percent cost reduction over existing alternatives. After the departure of the satellites from the second stage of the Falcon 9 v1.1, they will employ their electric propulsion systems to deliver themselves from the initial transfer orbit to their operational geostationary positions. The electric propulsion system consists of four 9.8-inch (25-cm) thrusters, with a listed specific impulse of 3,400-3,500 seconds and 79-165 mN of thrust.

“We are the first aerospace company to develop this highly efficient and flexible all-electric satellite and we completed the first two 702SPs less than three years after contract award,” said Mark Spiwak, president of Boeing Satellite Systems International, speaking in January 2015, after the completion of testing of Eutelsat 115 West B and ABS-3A. “With more than 210,000 hours of on-orbit experience with electric propulsion, we recognized that this highly efficient, lighter weight propulsion system would translate into cost savings for our customers.”

Boeing's 702SP ("Small Platform") satellite bus will be employed by both Eutelsat 115 West B and ABS-3A. Image Credit: Boeing

Boeing’s 702SP (“Small Platform”) satellite bus will be employed by both Eutelsat 115 West B and ABS-3A. Image Credit: Boeing

Also benefiting from the 702SP bus is Asia Broadcasting Satellite’s ABS-3A, which will be located at 3 degrees West longitude to cover the Americas, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, and is equipped with 24 C-band and 24 Ku-band transponders. The former will deliver three C-band beams for the Eastern Hemisphere (Africa, Madasgascar, Europe, the Middle East, and western Asia), the Western Hemisphere (South America, the Caribbean, Cuba, Florida, the United States’ Eastern Seaboard, and eastern Canada), and a “Global Beam” to cover the satellite’s entire “footprint” from the west of South America to central India. Meanwhile, the four Ku-band beams will principally cover the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa (MENA) and South Africa (SAF).

The MENA beam came about following a strategic commercial agreement, signed last summer, between ABS and Arab Satellite Communication Organisation (ARABSAT) for a multi-transponder lifetime Ku-band payload aboard ABS-3A. “The MENA beam of ABS-3A is the first time ABS has been able to provide a complete coverage of all of Middle East and North Africa,” said ABS Chief Executive Officer Tom Choi. “We are proud to announce ARABSAT as our strategic partner on this capacity which will serve the growing needs of their MENA customer base.” In addition to providing television, Internet Trunking, and cellular backhaul capabilities, ABS-3A also offers maritime services, since it will cover most of the Atlantic Ocean and large portions of the Indian Ocean.

Last November, Eutelsat 115 West B and ABS-3A were stacked, in readiness for launch, marking the first time that Boeing had “conjoined” two satellites in this fashion. The company developed a patented system to stack the satellites, without the need for a central adapter. Moreover, there was no need for the lowermost satellite in the stack—Eutelsat 115 West B in this case—to receive any structural modifications to support the loads of its uppermost counterpart. It was also intended that both satellites would not be separated from the launch vehicle until after orbital injection, thereby allowing them to be considered as a single payload, which reduces complexity for the launch provider.

 

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Missions » ABS 3A » Missions » EUTELSAT »

64 comments to SpaceX Achieves Three-for-Three, With Nocturnal Launch of Two Communications Satellites

  • Dennis Berube

    Goooooo SpaceX, keep making history!!!!!!!

  • Tracy the Troll

    Well this is good news however I was disappointed that this configuration didn’t allow for booster landing test. How will they adopt such a configuration in the future? Do separate flights? with costs on a reusable launch dropping 60% one would think that is the way to go..

    • libs0n

      After this flight Musk made a twitter comment that they are bumping F9 performance:

      “Upgrades in the works to allow landing for geo missions: thrust +15%, deep cryo oxygen, upper stage tank vol +10%”

      One would assume that payloads still too heavy would go on the Falcon Heavy configuration.

  • Joe

    The real question is why they could not attempt a down range landing on this test.

    Is it because the weight of the landing gear and fuel used for the controlled descent reduced the vehicle payload capacity too much to allow?

    If so, how much more is the payload capacity reduced by the fuel used to do a “fly back” maneuver (to allow landing back at the launch site)?

    What would be the Dragon Cargo Vehicle’s up mass capability (if any)?

    Would the Falcon 9 be able to launch the Dragon Crew Vehicle?

    • libs0n

      “If so, how much more is the payload capacity reduced by the fuel used to do a “fly back” maneuver (to allow landing back at the launch site)?”

      “Musk also addressed the performance hit that results from reserving propellant for landing the first stage.

      If we do an ocean landing (for testing purposes), the performance hit is actually quite small, maybe in the order of 15 percent. If we do a return to launch site landing, it’s probably double that, it’s more like a 30 percent hit (i.e., 30 percent of payload lost).”

      http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2013/10/musk-plans-reusability-falcon-9-rocket/

    • Tim Andrews

      Yes, the Falcon 9 will be able to launch the Crew Dragon. Crew Dragon, like Cargo Dragon is designed specifically to be launched on the Falcon 9.

      • Joe

        Hi Tim,

        I understand that the Crew Dragon is intended to be launched by the F9, the issue I was attempting to address was whether or not a reusable F9 would have the payload capacity to launch it.

        As an example the “30 percent of payload lost” listed above seems a little low (35% – 40% is probably more like it), but lets grant the 30%. SpaceX website lists the F9 payload capacity as 28,991 lbs, so a 30% loss would be 8,697 lbs.

        SpaceX website lists the Cargo Dragon up-mass as 13,228 lbs (though I believe the maximum payload so far flown has been less than 6,000 lbs – I am sure one of the site reporters will correct me if I am in error on that point). Assuming the 13,228 figure the reusable F9 would have a maximum ISS cargo up-mass of 4,531 lbs. However, if the actual up-mass is more like 6,000 lbs, the reusable F9 capability would become negative 2,697 lbs bringing into question whether or not it could launch an empty Cargo Dragon.

        • Lars

          Yes, F9 can launch Crew and Cargo Dragon in reusable mode. (See latest CRS-5 mission with legs and find)

          The additional 15% thrust and propellant densification, and upper stage strecth (all mentioned in Musk in a tweet) will further increase the margin.

          As far as Dragon mass, you are mixing payload and Dragon+payload mass.

          • Joe

            (1) “See latest CRS-5 mission with legs and find”

            But there was no attempt at a retrograde maneuver to return the stage to the launch site, which is my point.

            (2)”The additional 15% thrust and propellant densification, and upper stage strecth (all mentioned in Musk in a tweet) will further increase the margin.”

            If successfully implemented those changes (which appear to be upper stage related) will increase performance to GEO, this discussion is about LEO.

            (3)”As far as Dragon mass, you are mixing payload and Dragon+payload mass.”

            In the case of a Dragon launch a loss of 8,697 lbs total payload would have to come out of the up-mass as the rest of the vehicle weight is pretty much fixed.

            • libs0n

              The Dragon’s max payload may be less than the Falcon 9’s max payload.

              • Joe

                Of course it is.

                The Dragon is the F9’s payload. The Dragons payload is some subset of that.

                That does not change anything.

                • libs0n

                  I mean the Dragon’s max capabilites can be the limiting factor on ISS cargo missions and those flights may have vehicle performance reserve but not spacecraft performance reserve. I’m just re-iterating a point I made in another post.

                  ie. A fully loaded Dragon may not need a 13mt launcher, but a lesser one.

                  • Joe

                    Again, SpaceX web page claims the Dragon has an up mass capability of 13,228 lbs and has never come close to using it.

                    If the figures SpaceX presents are accurate then the Dragon vehicle performance cannot be the limiting factor.

                    You will believe whatever you want, so have fun.

            • libs0n

              Vehicle upgrades for GEO may also boost LEO figures.

              • Joe

                Changes to an upper stage will not increase LEO figures.

                • libs0n

                  I don’t think you’re correct on that, but the changes aren’t limited to upper stage work. Here is a news article that mentions that first stage engine thrust is being upgraded. Note that the second article mentions the performance reserve vs website advertised specs.

                  http://spaceflightnow.com/2015/02/20/ses-signs-up-for-launch-with-more-powerful-falcon-9-engines/

                  http://spacenews.com/39558updated-ses-books-falcon-9-for-2016-launch/

                  • Joe

                    The upper stage that is intended to take the payload to GEO by definition has nothing to do with LEO capability.

                    The article that mentions:
                    “SpaceX plans to launch the telecom satellite on a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in June or July, and the launcher’s nine Merlin 1D main engines will produce more power than on previous flights.

                    The closely-held Hawthorne, Calif.-based launch company has not disclosed what physical upgrades are present in the more powerful engines, or how much additional thrust the powerplants will generate.”

                    The quote from above mentions a 15% increase. If that is intended for the Merlin D engines, that means a large increase in pump speeds and pressures. That is going to be interesting for a stage that according to Musk will be reused 1,000 times and be turned around in one day with no inspection/maintenance.

                    You will believe whatever you want, so have fun.

                    • Tim Andrews

                      1,000 cycles seems like a bit of a stretch compared to what he’s said specifically of the Merlin 1D in answer to a question about the 40 cycles figure that has been cited by SpaceX’ president.

                      “We would have to replace a few parts that experience thermal stress after 40 cycles, but the rest of the engine would be fine.”

                      http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/2rgsan/i_am_elon_musk_ceocto_of_a_rocket_company_ama

                    • Joe

                      Musk has also made the whole stage reused 1,000 times with one day turn around and no required maintenance statements.

                      So I suppose the question would be which statement to take seriously.

                      Certainly the 40 cycles is the more believable, but another question now arises: Is that for the original Merlin D or the “new improved” (15% stronger) Merlin D?

                    • Tim Andrews

                      I’d love to see a source on that.

                      Closest I’ve been able to find are articles concluding what the price of a Falcon 9 would be if amortized over 1,000 flights, but I’ve never seen a direct quote from Musk claiming 1,000 flights without inspection or maintenance. Even where he’s spoken about rapid reuse (same day turnaround), he’s talked about automated inspection and processing being key technologies that would be necessary to make that possible.

                      Is there new hardware? Several articles have implied that the 15% thrust increase is the same hardware (hence no name change) being throttled up to higher specs, now that data has become available to support operation in that range. Other articles read as if it’s new hardware.

                    • Picking a number of flights over which to expense the DDTE costs of a system is a task for the accountants and program managers. Based on Shuttle, that number would likely be 10-25. One could forego that route and amortize the costs through a few higher paying customers.

                    • Joe

                      Tim Andrews

                      “I’d love to see a source on that.”

                      I’d love to give you one, but the one I had dated back to 2011 and is no longer active. Any hope of finding it again is negligible as it appears buried under a lot of other Musk quotes/tweets.

                      “being throttled up to higher specs…”

                      That is the situation I was talking about. “Throttling up” involves higher pump speeds and chamber pressures which puts extra stress on engine components and shortens their useful period.

                    • Tim Andrews

                      No knowing for sure which usage levels the 40 cycles between refurbishment referred to, but if the higher thrust levels significantly shortened engine life it would work against their purpose to do it in an effort to improve reuse. Since they are choosing to use it, and they have done static test firing to know what kind of wear it puts on the engine, I suspect it’s not putting to much wear to impact reuse.

                      They’ve got a lot of flight data and static test data on these engines. They seem to be a pretty known quantity at this point. The big unknown that they won’t have data on until they recover a core is airframe damage from flight. Considering the cores break apart from tipping over into water – that’s where I see the most risk for being able to succeed.

                      This is the only thing I could find on 1,000 reuses, from DailyTech:

                      —-
                      “Now, we could fail — I’m not saying we are certain of success here — but we are to try to do it,” said Musk. “And we have a design that on paper — doing the calculations, doing the simulations — it does work. Now, we need to make sure that those simulations and reality agree, because generally when they don’t, reality wins.”

                      According to Musk, a Falcon 9 can cost about $50 million to $60 million, but fuel and oxygen for one launch only costs $200,000. So if the rocket can be reused, he said, around 1,000 times, the capital cost of the rocket per launch would only be approximately $50,000.

                      “If it does work, it’ll be pretty huge,” said Musk.”
                      —-

                      He was floating out 1,000 uses for a core as a possible figure, but I don’t take anything from that to imply there wouldn’t be service or refurbishment of parts along the way.

                • Lars

                  “Changes to an upper stage will not increase LEO figures.”

                  What *are* you smoking? This is the same upper stage that will delivers Dragon to orbit. Additional performance benefits LEO payloads as well. Are you not familiar with F9???

                  • Joe

                    Sorry, you must have me confused with somebody else; I don’t smoke.

                    Have a nice day.

                  • The price of an F9 was originally priced at $25M in 2010, the price at which SpaceX costed half of its launch contracts. By 2012, the cost had risen to $50M. Today, the cost of F9.1
                    Is around $80M-$90M. That’s a nearly 100% cost growth for a <14% payload growth.

                    People who have actually launched rockets by the dozens tell me the notion of 40 flights between refurbs and 1,000 flights is scifi.

                    And in any case, at the current and projected rate of SoaceX lunches, it's going to take 25-50 years for SpaceX to get 1,000 launches, never mind 1,000 per launcher. FYI, there's a lot of grumbling in south Texas about the fact that SpaceX has yet to begin construction on its Boca Chica launch site.

            • libs0n

              They are doing a different testing plan than doing everything at once at first bat.

              They want to demonstrate downrange landings on a barge before attempting RTLS landings. Their RTLS pad still has yet to be constructed although they are making arrangements for one.

              Landing attempts preceded barge availability yet didn’t preclude it. Barge attempts are preceding land return yet don’t preclude it. Early flight testing profiles have their own test objectives. Later ones can have different ones including RTLS.

              • Joe

                None of that has anything to do with whether or not the F9’s (reusable version) payload capacity.

        • libs0n

          Joe,

          Downrange landing is a reusability mode planned to available for heavier payloads that has a lesser impact. If a payload is too heavy for RTLS then downrange landing is an option.

          Falcon 9 can launch payloads that do not max out its performance envelope. Your assumption that Cargo Dragon does max out Falcon 9 payload may be inaccurate. Falcon 9 cargo Dragon launches could have excess performance reserve which the reusability impact could eat into without impacting the mission payload or rendering it nonviable. ISS pressurized cargo missions may be volume limited before being mass limited so your assumption that the vehicle is lifting its weight max may be erroneous and it may be lifting its volume max or even the customer’s provided payload max if the customer cargo needs don’t max out vehicle performance for a given mission.

          Falcon 9 vehicle performance may end up being in excess of your figures cited. SpaceX vehicle performance characteristics listed with NASA for the launch services program are in excess of website figures. SpaceX has vehicle performance in reserve. It may open up that reserve over time or with vehicle upgrades as mentioned in a post above.

          Reusability attempts are taking place during actual Dragon cargo missions and we at least know that SpaceX can get a returned stage to within downrange landing platform proximity during actual cargo mission launches. RTLS attempts appear ahead as SpaceX is commissioning a RTLS landing pad so it is not unlikely that they intend to make such a thing apparent on a future cargo mission.

          • Joe

            All the figures I used came from the SpaceX website.

            For analysis I assumed them to be accurate.

            If you question the figures you will have to take that up with SpaceX.

            • Gary Church

              It’s not a question of NewSpace followers “questioning” anything. They just flat deny that anything could possibly be suspicious about SpaceX and their LEO manifesto. In my view NewSpace has always been a scam. They have swindled the public by promising space exploration on the cheap and use NASA resources to lower their visible costs. The result is a satellite launch business undercutting the competition using tax dollars. The exact opposite of the free market wonder SpaceX P.R. and their legion of gullible groupies propagandize. Am I being too harsh?

              • I have found the whole idea of NASA funding “commercial” space companies for the DDTE and services of commercial products to be just other-worldly. For the uninitiated, NASA first pays for the full development of a “commercial” space product; NASA subsequently pays, at a premium, for the services of that same product. I joke with my friends in the mobile software business that they need to rebrand their companies as “commercial” space and get-in on this largesse.

                What is galling is that opponents of Orion or SLS, in pointing out that those systems will cost NASA so much more than the NASA subsidized “commercial” services, quote a unit cost that has as a large part of it the amortized development, never mind NASA operational, costs. They seem little bothered when it’s pointed-out that to compare “commercial” space and NASA programs absent factoring-in DDTE costs is to compare apples to oranges and makes “commercial” space services appear much less expensive than they in fact are.

                • Tim Andrews

                  Any way you slice it, NASA’s paying for the major portion of the development cost in the vehicles they are going to use. Just like the “old-space” approach, the budgeted costs are done through a competitive bidding process, so there is competition involved in limiting the budgeted price. The big difference with the commercial approach is that the costs are fixed at the bid price. If the contractor faces overruns, they will either need to eat the extra cost out of their profits or they won’t get paid because they didn’t deliver. In contrast the old-space approach of cost-plus contracting negates the some of the advantages of competitive bidding because the contractor is guaranteed their profit, even if they never achieve success. Project overruns and delays just result in more tax dollars coming their way, and the project costs more than the bid price.

                  • Gary Church

                    Any way you slice it, SpaceX is undercutting the competition by reducing their costs with NASA free support. That NASA support is for the ISS and not for generating satellite launch profits for shareholders. It seems illegal to me. Of course SpaceX groupies will scream all day about how corrupt and bloated the old space companies and NASA are. But any way you slice it there is no cheap taxi ride to the ISS yet while SpaceX launches commercial satellites using tax dollars to subsidize their operations. It seems to me Elon is a good candidate for a perp walk sooner or later. The day is coming he will be marched away in cuffs. I hope.

                    • Tim Andrews

                      “SpaceX is undercutting the competition by reducing their costs with NASA free support.”

                      What competition?

                      That’s the whole reason for government funding development – when the government has a need for a product that doesn’t exist.

                      It’s not illegal at all, it’s completely normal in government procurement, especially for the military and space. Partnered development, where the vendor is able to commercialize the development is part of the incentive for businesses to come on board, that combined with competitive bidding is designed to reduce the government’s cost. It’s on our roads from Jeeps to Hummers. It’s in the skies of all of our allies that purchase American military aircraft. It’s in our homes from Pyrex to Tang and even Kermit The Frog.

                    • Joe

                      Tim,

                      He is rather obviously talking about competitors to launch these particular two satellites.

                      SpaceX is definitely using hardware developed at government expense for other purposes to launch them and that holds their costs down.

                      They are almost certainly using cash flow and other launch facility advantages to reduce their costs.

                      I do not think it is illegal either, but neither is it the libertarian dream of a pure commercial enterprise.

                      I really don’t care one way or the other, but is an example of the government picking winner and losers which most “new space” supporters claim to hate.

                      Unless of course it is to the benefit of their favored company.

                    • Tim Andrews

                      “He is rather obviously talking about competitors to launch these particular two satellites.”

                      Which is why I asked what competition. What commercial launch provider is out there capable of launching these payloads that SpaceX is supposedly unfairly competing against with a launcher that was developed in part with government funding?

                      “SpaceX is definitely using hardware developed at government expense for other purposes to launch them and that holds their costs down.”

                      Right, which gave them business incentive to do the development in the first place.

                      “I do not think it is illegal either, but neither is it the libertarian dream of a pure commercial enterprise.”

                      Very true. The Obama “You didn’t build that” speech has merit.

                    • Joe

                      Tim,

                      “Which is why I asked what competition. What commercial launch provider is out there capable of launching these payloads…”

                      SpaceX is not the only provider of launchers in this payload range, as much as Musk (and perhaps you) might like them to be. There are others foreign and domestic.

                      “Right, which gave them business incentive to do the development in the first place.”

                      And that incentive was that the government had already paid the bulk of their development cost for a project (CRS) on which they are currently under performing.

                      “The Obama “You didn’t build that” speech has merit.”

                      I have listened to too many SpaceX supporters rant against exactly that kind of thing to listen to that with a straight face.

                      If you wish to now become a supporter of what has been called (by SpaceX supporters) crony capitalism, it is fine by me.

                      Like I said my interest in the commercial satellite market approaches non-existent.

                      But you should not expect everybody to be oblivious to the hypocrisy involved.

                      I am now going to leave this particular discussion as their is no useful place for it to go.

                    • Tim Andrews

                      “SpaceX is not the only provider of launchers in this payload range,”

                      Nor did I claim they were. What I asked about was who is it that they are supposedly competing unfairly against.

                      There are no providers with EELV class launching ability using vehicles that were developed without significant government funding. There is no one for them to be competing unfairly against.

        • Tim Andrews

          “whether or not a reusable F9 would have the payload capacity to launch it.”

          Based on the follow-up posts, I take it the question is also whether the F9R could launch the Dragon and still boost back to the launch area for landing.

          The fact that the booster recovery tests so far have been performed on Cargo Dragon CRS missions, while not on GTO missions would suggest that those missions fit within the parameters for their booster recovery plan. That plan included the increase in propellant capacity from F9 V1 to V1.1 specifically to provide for boost-back and landing.

          It’s easy to go in circles armchair quarterbacking with quoted mass numbers from Wikipedia and SpaceX’s web site, and not really know if those numbers are based on having a reserve for boost-back and landing or not or what other variables come into play. Ultimately, until SpaceX lands back at the launch area (if they do), there won’t be any real world data on what it takes to do so.

          SpaceX is confident enough in their math they’ve put their money where their mouth is and signed a lease on LC-13 for landing at CCAFS, which I take as a sign that at least the folks most intimate with the challenge and the available data are coming to the conclusion that it will work.

          • Joe

            “It’s easy to go in circles armchair quarterbacking with quoted mass numbers from Wikipedia and SpaceX’s web site ….”

            It is also easy to attempt to be condescending. For the record I never used any information from “Wikipedia” and if you consider the information from SpaceX Website no more reliable than Wikipedia that is rather telling.

            Your position seems to be that (due to SpaceX secretiveness)there is no reliable information and we must therefore simply trust that SpaceX knows what it is doing.

            That is certainly a position. If SpaceX were working entirely on private money (like Blue Origin) I would agree with it.

            But SpaceX is receiving Billions of tax dollars from the government and I believe that should allow the right for a little healthy skepticism.

            • Tim Andrews

              Sorry… sometimes a quickly typed response isn’t worded as carefully as it might be and comes off sounding different than intended. I was not meaning to point a finger straight at you – but rather the generality of the way this type of thing is often discussed on the Internet – your post only being a subset of that type of discussion. My point was that intending to prove what can or can’t be done with a rocket based on a limited and questionable data set isn’t going to yield reliable results compared to proving it with a more complete data set. Thus I expect the results of those who have the more complete data set to be more reliable.

              “Your position seems to be that (due to SpaceX secretiveness)there is no reliable information and we must therefore simply trust that SpaceX knows what it is doing.”

              Not at all. They absolutely need to be accountable to NASA, or to the Air Force (in the case of EELV launches they are trying to get) to prove they are meeting the requirements of their contracts, and both of those agencies are accountable to congress (the House committee on space took NASA to task last week for not being transparent enough to them and ASAP on commercial crew).

              As a fan of space tech, I’d love it if they shared more detail with the general public – but it’s definitely their right not to, especially for things they are doing that aren’t taxpayer funded, like recovery and reuse of their boosters.

              “But SpaceX is receiving Billions of tax dollars from the government and I believe that should allow the right for a little healthy skepticism.”

              I think you and I are entitled to as much or little skepticism as we’d like to have, regardless of who paid for what.

              • Joe

                “I’d love it if they shared more detail with the general public – but it’s definitely their right not to, especially for things they are doing that aren’t taxpayer funded, like recovery and reuse of their boosters.”

                Sorry, but I will have to disagree. Without COTS, CRS, Commercial Crew money there would be no Falcon 9 to attempt to make reusable.

                Additionally money (as the cliché goes) is fungible. Without the CRS contract (on which SpaceX is currently underperforming) it is doubtful they would have the cash flow to do the reusability testing.

                More than that they (and others on the internet) use Musk’s promises of future performance to attempt to transfer money from other government projects to the them.

                Based on all of that, I think they owe everybody a lot more transparency (not that we will ever get it).

                • Tim Andrews

                  “Sorry, but I will have to disagree. Without COTS, CRS, Commercial Crew money there would be no Falcon 9 to attempt to make reusable.”

                  Following this logic, AM General would have had to been completely transparent about the designs of the H2 SUV while they were developing it, despite the fact that they did so with their own funds, since the were paid by the government to design the original Hummer. I’m not sure I agree with that.

                  “I think they owe everybody a lot more transparency”

                  I’m curious then, what specific information they should supply to the public, and haven’t. Was this specified in any of their contracts? If it wasn’t who’s fault would that be?

                  • Joe

                    Lots of things (just to name two):
                    – Actual payload capacity to LEO of an F9 (with fuel reserves for a fly back landing.
                    – The actual maximum up mass of a Dragon Cargo Vehicle (assuming the booster can lift it)

                    and one more all that test data they have that makes you confident that “throttle up” of the Merlin D engine will not be “putting to much wear to impact reuse” See your post dated March 4, 2015 at 2:41 pm.

                    All of those (and others)directly relate to COTS/CRS performance.

                    • Gary Church

                      “Lots of things (just to name two):”

                      Having worked on airplanes for most of my life, I find the idea that the fragile rocket stage- after being subjected to the vibration and forces of a launch and then a landing- can be “turned around” for another launch without very detailed inspections to be ridiculous. This goes double for the 9 rocket engines with their turbopumps and miles of plumbing. The time and manpower and resources necessary to reuse stages makes dropping them in the ocean cheaper. This reality was accepted over half a century ago and no miracle in materials science has changed the situation. It is a P.R. miracle only. The shuttle SRB’s were simple steel casings and simple to inspect and still did not break even- though the inspections did allow for over 200 flawless firings in a row of these massively powerful boosters. The funky falcon is a hobby rocket in comparison.

                      In regards to these falcon stages flying all the way back to the cape- it defies the rocket equation. Landing at sea is not going to work simply because of the weather, let alone it entails a significant mass penalty and requires aircraft carrier type landings. Taking off from the west coast and landing the stages at the cape? Just a variation of a concept that is inherently impractical.

                      I submit it is just a ruse to keep the public duped into believing in “a new age of cheap space travel” and insure the tax dollars and free NASA support keep flowing for the years it takes to “prove” what is already known: reusability is a myth.

                    • Neil

                      Joe. Don’t you think that if there were any issues at play with SpaceX launches for NASA, then NASA would be all over them? Since they appear quite happy with SpaceX CRS contract performance to date and in fact are considering adding an extension of 3 additional flights to the SpaceX CRS contract (1 additional to Orbital) as per the latest FPIP document, I wonder what you are so concerned about?
                      I also note that NASA is even more fully engaged with Boeing and SpaceX in the CCtCap Program than they were for COTS and quite rightly so as we’re talking crew transport.
                      Don’t you trust NASA oversight? Just wondering.
                      As well, the F9v1.1 has a perfect flight record of 10 IIRC so far. It’s a matter of record that launch vehicle failures tend to occur within the first few flights of a new vehicle so it seems like SpaceX actually know a thing or two and have learnt from other companies sometimes bitter experience. E.g. Orbital
                      Cheers

                    • Joe

                      Neil,

                      It will serve no purpose to get into a back and forth on the difference between NASA being happy and NASA’s politically appointed leadership being “happy”.

                      It is worth noting, however, that NASA has already had to extend the terms of SpaceX first CRS contract (no additional flights)by two years to allow SpaceX to attempt and appear to meet their original commitment.

                      http://spacenews.com/40059nasa-says-it-will-extend-private-iss-cargo-delivery-contracts-through-2017/

                      As you say – Cheers.

                  • Gary Church

                    “-on the difference between NASA being happy and NASA’s politically appointed leadership being “happy”.”

                    Joe has such a polite way of putting things. And I am NOT trying to infer he supports or even has the same view of this as I do.

                    In MY view the “politically appointed leadership” are two-face double agents of SpaceX long ago corrupted into supporting the NewSpace agenda. The last NASA press release I saw concerning Orion had Bolden turning it into an advertisement for SpaceX and supports my accusation.

                    http://www.spaceflightinsider.com/organizations/nasa/orion-event-ksc-classic-bolden/

                    Bolden’s assertion that SLS/Orion and SpaceX/ISS are not competing with one another is ridiculous and an insult to anyone’s intelligence.

  • Neil

    Gary, Joe and Jim. It seems to me that you guys simply don’t understand what so-called Newspace has to offer and not just Newspace companies but Oldspace like Boeing and Orbital. These companies are helping NASA reduce the cost of leo transport for cargo and they will do it for crew as well. This will allow or should allow NASA to focus its efforts and more dollars on beo activities. How they do that of course is up for debate and so far, there is no consensus.

    To all posters, I would note that public companies are responsible to Boards, stockholders and various regulatory agencies plus funding organisations among others. Private companies are less so. Boeing is public, SpaceX is private. NASA is a taxpayer funded agency of the U.S. Federal government and has a whole raft of reporting and disclosure requirements also different from companies public and private.

    When people decide in their own minds what a company or agency should or should not be disclosing, I’ve noticed that it rarely bears any resemblance to the specific disclosure requirements applicable to the particular organisation and therefore anything following on from that is also likely to be misinformed and/or fallacious.

    Seems like there’s a lot more of that behaviour in evidence on space-related blogs.
    Cheers

    • Joe

      Neil,

      I am an engineer not a lawyer, so no doubt I do not have your sophisticated/nuanced perspective.

      But in my simple way of looking at things calling a company(SpaceX)that is taking billions of dollars in government money “private” is completely separated from reality.

      If you wish to call Blue Origin private that makes sense, but not SpaceX.

      Don’t get me wrong, I am not so naïve as to think there are not ways for Musk to take those billions of the taxpayers dollars while still claiming to be private.

      It’s the reason most people distrust lawyers.

      • Tim Andrews

        It’s not an exclusive lawyer’s nuance to understand that whether a company is public or private has nothing to do with how much money they take in through government contracts. The difference is who owns them – whether or not their stock is traded on a public stock exchange.

        I am surprised you are not similarly critical of Blue Origin. They received $22 million dollars in direct tax-paid funding under CCDev2, and continue to receive tax-paid free consultation services from NASA under their Space Act Agreement, both in support of their engine and vehicle development, which they are planning to put to commercial (non-government customer) use.

        • Joe

          “It’s not an exclusive lawyer’s nuance …”

          It is never the less nuance and double talk.

          I am not talking about being paid to provide a service, but government funding to develop capability to provide the service.

          Yes the government has the right (maybe in some cases even the duty) to make such arraignments and there is nothing wrong with a company engaging in them. My point (rather obviously) is if they do they should have the obligation of transparency to the public that paid for it. As I said above I do not doubt SpaceX has the legal power to avoid that transparency and I believe that to be a flaw in the law.

          You are arguing legalities while am trying to talk about morals/ethics.

          “I am surprised you are not similarly critical of Blue Origin.”

          Lets see, $22 Million for Blue Origin against Billions (under COTS and Commercial Crew) for SpaceX. OK, from now on every 100 times I criticize SpaceX; I will be sure to criticize Blue Origin once.

          This “he who posts last wins” contest is giving me flashbacks to the old Space Politics Website (never a pleasant experience) so this will be my last comment in this exchange.

          Congratulations, you only have to post one more time and you “win”.

  • Gary Church

    “It seems to me that you guys simply don’t understand what so-called Newspace has to offer-”

    Oh, I understand exactly what is on offer; stranding the U.S. in LEO for decades to come. LEO is a dead end.

    “This will allow or should allow NASA to focus its efforts and more dollars on beo activities. How they do that of course is up for debate and so far, there is no consensus.”

    I completely disagree with that statement. I do not believe there is any debate about NewSpace “allowing” NASA to focus on BEO. NewSpace wants nothing to do with any NASA dollars going to the SLS, which is the only hope for Human Space Flight Beyond Earth Orbit.

  • John hare

    Gary,
    I haven’t joined this thread because it would serve no purpose. SLS has a political and cost problem to a greater degree than the commercial companies that makes it unlikely to hit the stated goals. That doesn’t mean that SpaceX is the answer any more than any other particular solution. It does mean that most bashing both ways is a waste of time and energy. I have had a few back and forths with Joe and Jim Hillhouse in the past that did not result in agreement, but also didn’t result in anger and disrespect. When you take the stance that anyone not with me is against me, you lose your right to complain about excess enemies.

    • Gary Church

      “-you lose your right to complain about excess enemies.”

      Whatever you are babbling about, you do determine what my rights are. The NewSpace playbook is only so big and I am pretty familiar with it after the last 5+ years of being harassed and insulted by Musk groupies. Taking the moral high ground only works when others agree you have it. You want to talk about anger and disrespect? Puh-leez.

  • Tracy the troll

    Joe,
    As soon as SpaceX lands the first booster on the barge…LM announces The return of the fully reusable VentureStar. Single stage to orbit…First launch 2018.

    • Joe

      Tracy,

      If that could actually happen, I would be the happiest guy in the room.

      But I would not suggest betting the farm on it.

      • Gary Church

        If it could have happened, it would have happened. The Isp numbers have not changed in the last half a century and are not going to. I will bet on the rocket equation and the numbers say what Musk is peddling is a scam.

        • Neil

          We’ll that could happen this year, then we’ll see who’s scamming who.
          Cheers

          • Gary Church

            Then we’ll see? It is plain as day to anyone not drinking the kool-aid. When it does manage to land on that barge it will prove nothing- not a thing. SpaceX must reuse rocket stages and show it is actually cheaper than dropping them in the ocean- and that is never going to happen. But it will of course take several years of trying before no one is fooled anymore and while that farce is dragged out the tax dollars and free NASA support will continue to flow.

        • Neil

          Further to my previous post, NSF L2 has a specific mission identified this year for RTLS but you’ll have to join L2 or simply wait until it becomes public.
          Cheers

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