SpaceX’s next Falcon 9 launch, possibly as early as March 29th, will mark a major milestone for the company. Carrying the Luxembourg owned SES-10 communications satellite, it will be the first to reuse – and hopefully recover for a second time – a previously flown Falcon 9 core.

Since the first successful Falcon 9 landing on December 21st 2015, SpaceX have repeatedly demonstrated the ability to recover their first stages to both downrange droneship and Return To Launch Site pad landings. But while there can be no doubting how technically impressive this capability is, it will ultimately count for nothing unless they can refurbish and re-fly the recovered cores repeatedly, amortising their development costs and sustaining reduced launch costs for their customers.

SpaceX had originally hoped that this flight would take place in 2016, but that was before the launch pad explosion of a Falcon 9 carrying the AMOS-6 satellite during a static-fire test on September 1st, 2016. Since Falcon’s return to flight in January this year, the company are pushing hard to regain lost ground across a number of fronts.

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by”

It’s fair to wonder whether Elon Musk is beginning to identify with this quote by author Douglas Adams. SpaceX have a long list of goals and planned missions, often announced to much media fanfare by Musk, but often carrying equally ambitious timelines. Following January’s return to flight for Falcon 9, SpaceX now face an increasingly busy few years if they are to meet their commitments which include:

  • A 2017 debut flight for the company’s larger Falcon Heavy vehicle (initially slated for 2013, but much delayed since)
  • The start of flights to the ISS under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program using the Crew Dragon (originally planned for 2017, but currently slated for 2018)
  • An uncrewed flight of the Dragon capsule, dubbed Red Dragon, to the Martian surface (originally planned for 2018 but revised earlier this year to 2020)
  • A flight for two paying customers around the Moon during 2018 using a Falcon Heavy launched Crew Dragon
  • The development of an entirely new class of Super-Heavy launch vehicle and spacecraft, the Interplanetary Transport System, to begin the establishment of a Mars colony by 2024.
  • Development of their own dedicated launch and landing facilities near Brownsville, Texas.
  • The deployment of the company’s own planned satellite internet constellation, an initiative that will help fund SpaceX’s other plans.

All of these goals must also rest on the back of a full roster of revenue generating commercial flights for current customers including NASA under their CRS cargo resupply contract.

Financial documents published by the Wall Street Journal earlier this year revealed details of SpaceX’s finances. The documents show narrow operating margins for the company, partly as a result of the Sept 2016 and 2015 Falcon 9 failures but also due to the low profit margins on each commercial launch as SpaceX seeks to undercut its competitors such as United Launch Alliance (ULA) and ArianeSpace. The key to SpaceX’s continued ability to undercut the competition will depend in large part on the routine recovery and reuse of the Falcon 9.

If the SES-10 launch proceeds without problems many of the doubters may be silenced and SpaceX could truly be on the brink of a real revolution in spaceflight – a tipping point at which expendable rockets become the exception for a launch company rather than the rule as they have been since the dawn of the space age in 1957. But can reusability really work? It has become something of a fashionable mantra from some within NASA to state that the Shuttle proved reusable vehicles couldn’t be economically competitive with expendable launchers. Whilst this was certainly the case for the hugely expensive shuttle, this single example shouldn’t be taken as a rule that can be broadly applied to reusable vehicles per-se. There were many factors inherent within the shuttle’s design that conspired to mean that the planned high flight rates could never be attained, nor could the aspiration of ‘aircraft-like operations’ with highly automated check-out procedures and rapid turnarounds between flights ever be achieved. Many of these had their roots in the restricted post-apollo budgets from which the compromised design for the Space Transportation System emerged.

With the Falcon 9, SpaceX has been able to iteratively design a launch system that could gradually test elements of reusability while still carrying out the all important revenue generating work of delivering payloads to orbit. Unlike the shuttle, failure during recovery was an option for the Falcon 9 during its development. This points to one of the key differentiators that SpaceX and fellow reusable commercial launch company Blue Origin, have on their side. With founders coming from the technology startup culture, both firms have concepts of lean, agile development ingrained into their corporate DNA. Functioning as space launch OEMs, they have developed their own vehicles and propulsion technologies from scratch. The risk in these new developments has been met partly by the significant financial resources of their founders, but also by clients willing to chance their fortunes with less-proven technology in return for reduced launch costs. While some still refer to SpaceX and Blue Origin as ‘New Space’ both are now well into their second decade of operation, so perhaps it is more appropriate to refer to Commercial Space as compared to the more established Government Space represented by NASA, where the cost-plus contract is still king and development takes place at a far slower pace, insulated to a large extent from market forces.

Whilst this difference of corporate and operational cultures has ushered in a new era in the launch industry, it hasn’t been without its problems. A cult of personality seems to have developed around the new generation of space moguls, with both space enthusiasts and commentators seeking to identify themselves with their chosen camp. We see online baiting between rival groups of so-called ‘fanboys’ who revel in the failures of ‘the opposition’ while failing to find fault on their chosen side. Musk and Bezos have themselves become embroiled in Twitter ‘one-upmanship’, further fuelling such rivalries. Commercial space is in danger of becoming a T-shirt selling team sport, losing sight of the fact that a healthy market requires multiple players and a diversity of approaches driving both competition and innovation.

Rapid iteration has also led to accusations that SpaceX may be taking unnecessary risks. The use of super-cooled cryogenic propellants to achieve greater densification and therefore greater performance in the current iteration of the Falcon 9 means late fuelling. This caused launch delays when first introduced and was implicated in the tank failure thought to have caused the AMOS-6 explosion. SpaceX’s intend to use the same technique on Commercial Crew missions for NASA, raising alarm in some quarters including the Space Station Advisory Committee (chaired by Gemini and Apollo veteran Tom Stafford) as this would mean fuelling the rocket with the crew onboard. Clearly further discussions between SpaceX and NASA will be required on this point and while relations between the parties seem cordial at the moment, some have speculated that Musk’s penchant for announcing ambitious new goals while current ones still require focus, may cause friction.

These concerns seemed to receive fresh impetus recently with the announcement of the a circumlunar Dragon flight coming mere weeks after indications that NASA were examining the feasibility of putting a crew on the EM-1 circumlunar test flight of their SLS/Orion system. While Musk may deny an intention to steal NASA’s thunder, there are many who would rather see more focus on the Commercial Crew Program and less on private ventures within the same timeframe.

It seems almost unavoidable that if SpaceX are able to fly Falcon Heavy within 2017 and Blue Origin’s New Glenn and ULA’s Vulcan, both offering economies via reusability, are relatively close behind then the future will look far from certain for NASA’s heavy lift behemoth, the SLS. Hugely expensive, eschewing any attempt at reusability and with an extremely low projected flight rate, it’s hard to see how SLS can compete in any meaningful way with the commercial launch vehicles. Although it will have the edge on its competitors in terms of payload capacity, the orbital construction of large vehicles following multiple launches may turn out to be a more affordable bet in the long run.

So do SpaceX even need NASA? Well it should be remembered that were it not for the faith shown by NASA in SpaceX during their formative years, the Falcon 9 might not be flying now. NASA’s selection of the company for both the Commercial Resupply and Commercial Crew programmes to the ISS helped bankroll development and gave Musk an important cornerstone client around which to develop the business. NASA may have an uncertain future as a launch vehicle manufacturer, but their ongoing missions in Earth orbit and beyond will likely remain a key part of SpaceX’s activities.

NASA also has something else SpaceX will badly need if they are to pursue their plans – a deep space tracking network and experience in operating spacecraft both in orbit and on the surface of Musk’s beloved Mars. While SpaceX have shown an ability to rapidly learn and adapt, they would be unwise to try and learn everything by themselves. Hard-won deep space experience and existing infrastructure are hugely valuable commodities that NASA currently holds.

So can SpaceX really make good on all of their promises and plans? We’ll have a far better idea by the end of 2017. Away from the Musk spotlight, it’s always worth seeking out statements by the company’s President and Chief Operating Officer, Gwynne Shotwell. With her industry background at The Aerospace Corporation, Shotwell represents the business end of SpaceX – the day to day operations. Her words offer a dose of pragmatism to balance the high-profile headline catching. In January this year she predicted that the company would be able to achieve Falcon 9 launches every two to three weeks throughout 2017. Shotwell also remains confident that Falcon Heavy will launch this year.

A 2017 without significant hardware failures, a high launch rate, routine recovery and re-flight of Falcon 9 cores and that all important Falcon Heavy launch may not silence all of SpaceX’s critics, but it will certainly be a landmark year for a maturing company.

Falcon Heavy in flight, hopefully a sight we’ll see for real before the end of 2017 [IMG: SpaceX]