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SpaceX to balance business realities, rocket innovation

Posted: June 6, 2014

Striving to be ready for an onslaught of launches under contract over the next few years, SpaceX plans to double the launcher production rate in its Southern California factory before the end of the year without compromising its commitments to develop a human-rated commercial spaceship, demonstrate rocket reusability, and further cut the cost of space transportation.

A view of the Falcon 9 first stage's nine Merlin 1D engines. Credit: SpaceX
"We need to meet our cadence of launch," said Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, at a discussion Wednesday at the Atlantic Council in Washington. "It's about one a month this year, and it's almost two a month next year."

While SpaceX tries to manage a manifest packed with launches for NASA, commercial satellite operators, and perhaps soon the U.S. military, Shotwell said SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk is committed to keeping the company at the forefront of space transportation innovation.

"Elements in SpaceX clearly are focusing on operability and production," Shotwell said. "It's a transition that we're meeting the challenges of as we speak, but SpaceX will never be a company that is just operations and production focused. We'll always have a team of [research and development] engineers and technicians to ensure that we are constantly innovating. Elon's job is to make sure we are constantly innovating and pushing boundaries."

In the next few years, SpaceX wants to develop a human-rated commercial spaceship and a reusable version of its Falcon 9 rocket. NASA is helping fund a crewed configuration of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft, a project Musk estimates will cost about $1 billion, and SpaceX is using private capital to develop and demonstrate the Falcon 9 rocket's reusability.

SpaceX has not disclosed how much the reusable rocket program will cost.

"We are focused on production and operability for part of the company, and the other part is the innovation piece, and we will continue that forever," Shotwell said.

SpaceX had planned 10 or more Falcon 9 rocket launches this year, but delays caused by both internal technical issues and external forces have conspired to keep the commercial launchers from meeting the company's manifest.

After a quick start to the year with the successful launch of the Thaicom 6 telecommunications satellite Jan. 6, SpaceX had to wait until April 18 for its second mission of the year, which faced delays as engineers completed upgrades to the company's Dragon cargo resupply capsule for the International Space Station.

Engineers also discovered contamination in the Dragon's cargo bay, and then an electrical fire knocked a U.S. Air Force tracking radar offline at Cape Canaveral, triggering more delays.

Throw in the difficulties of scheduling a mission to the International Space Station -- a process likened to air traffic control at an airport amid the comings and goings of international crew and cargo ships -- and SpaceX's resupply flights can only launch when the space station is ready to receive them.

A helium leak in the Falcon 9 rocket's first stage liquid oxygen pressurization system was the culprit for SpaceX's most recent delay. Engineers discovered the anomaly on the launch pad on the eve of a planned liftoff with six Orbcomm data relay satellites, triggering a month-long launch slip.

"We had a helium leak," Musk said. "Helium is a pernicious little molecule, I've got to say."

The Orbcomm mission is set for liftoff June 12 from Cape Canaveral in a 54-minute launch window opening at 9:07 p.m. EDT (0107 GMT on June 13).

A view inside the SpaceX rocket factory in Hawthorne, Calif. Credit: SpaceX
Two communications satellites owned by AsiaSat of Hong Kong are next in SpaceX's launch queue. AsiaSat officials have said the spacecraft are complete and being stored at their Space Systems/Loral manufacturing plant in Palo Alto, Calif.

The satellite processing clean room inside SpaceX's launch pad hangar at Cape Canaveral can only accommodate one payload at a time, so the shipment of the AsiaSat 8 satellite -- the next payload on SpaceX's manifest for launch this summer -- is on hold until the Orbcomm mission is launched.

"We have to execute on our manifest," Shotwell said. "I think the most recent criticism of SpaceX is can't we fly the missions that we say we're going to fly. I think we'll prove that [we can] over the coming months."

SpaceX will not consider a public stock offering before achieving a predictable launch rate, Shotwell said.

"We have had delays as any development program does, but now we're starting to see where we're going to be waiting on our customers, which frankly is a relief to me," Shotwell said. "We're going to have to be good about predicting when we'll launch and what we'll launch before we change our [capitalization] strategy."

Speaking to reporters via a conference call in April, Musk identified one manufacturing glitch, saying a primary constraint driving SpaceX's schedule "all boils down to this one particular part -- an injector casting."

"We think we've resolved that particular issue, which should unlock quite a high rate of increased production," Musk said.

SpaceX has 42 missions on its manifest at a value of $4.2 billion, according to Shotwell, who claimed the company captured "100 percent" of commercial Falcon 9-class launch business in 2011 and 2012. Many of the missions contracted in 2011 and 2012 are on SpaceX's launch schedule over the next 12 months.

Shotwell said SpaceX will not hesitate to add new capabilities, upgraded components or other systems to its Falcon 9 rockets, as long as their customers are comfortable with it.

SpaceX officials have said they will not use a Falcon 9 rocket as a reusability testbed unless the customer gives permission. Engineers are now trying to guide a Falcon 9 first stage to a precision ocean splashdown a few hundred miles downrange from the launch site, then recover the rocket for inspections.

Some time soon -- Musk says as soon as next year -- SpaceX could be ready to fly a Falcon 9 rocket with a first stage with a flight already in its logbook.

"I believe we have to get out of this mindset that the best rocket and the best technology is the one that has stayed the same for decades," Shotwell said. "In no other industry is that the case. You can imagine the chip industry, Intel and Qualcomm, if their chips remained the same year after year. It would be a disaster. I do want to push the concept of innovating to make better, and we'll have to work through processes to make that OK.

"Just to be clear, customers can fly the certified configuration if that's what they want. I think we'll demonstrate that we can innovate and spin our design successfully. We've done it successfully to date ... We need to get our customers comfortable with the design process."

SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell. Credit: NASA/Jay Westcott
By the end of 2014, SpaceX will producing two rockets every month, Shotwell said. That is up from one per month at the current rate inside SpaceX's factory in Hawthorne, Calif.

"We're really screaming on production," Shotwell said.

Each Falcon 9 rocket has 10 Merlin 1D engines, so building two rockets per month will demand SpaceX's engine shop produce at least 240 engines per year. The introduction of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket, made of three Falcon 9 first stage cores with nine engines each, will make the propulsion team churn out even more engines.

Each Falcon Heavy rocket flies with 28 Merlin engines on the first stage, strap-on boosters and the upper stage.

The assembly line could get a reprieve if SpaceX can demonstrate the technical and economic feasibility of recovering and reusing the first stages of Falcon rockets.

"We anticipate probably 50 percent market capture as we build out the Falcon family of launch vehicles, if not more," Shotwell said.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.