Last month I wrote two commentaries for Forbes.com questioning whether Space Exploration Technologies Corporation — SpaceX — was ready to be a reliable launch provider for resupply of NASA’s International Space Station. I pointed out that the company has only launched its signature Falcon 9 rocket twice, and those launches were not without problems. By way of comparison, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin partnership United Launch Alliance has sent rockets into space 50 consecutive times without mishap. Doubts about SpaceX’s modest track record will presumably loom larger when the payload includes astronauts, rather than just cargo.
SpaceX responded to the Forbes pieces by questioning my motives and honesty, but it didn’t address many of the particulars I raised — like its pattern of raising prices and delaying launches, or its heavy reliance on taxpayers to fund what is supposedly an entrepreneurial commercial enterprise. Considering how frequently SpaceX highlights the difference between its business model and that of traditional launch providers, the company’s actual performance seems remarkably similar to the failings of competitors it so stridently derides. Anyway, I have a couple of follow-on questions I’d like to pose about how the company operates.
The first question concerns the launch manifest that SpaceX proudly displays on its web-site. That manifest shows six launches planned for calendar-year 2013, beginning with a flight to geosynchronous transfer orbit for Luxembourg-based commercial satcom operator SES (SpaceX’s first geo mission). The real number of launches to which the company has committed in that year is at least seven, since the manifest does not display another geosynchronous launch order received from Thaicom in late May. What I don’t get is how a company that currently expects to perform only one launch of Falcon 9 this year, and may conduct none, proposes to execute a launch every other month two years from now. Isn’t that a bit improbable — especially given the admission by SES head Romain Bausch that the Falcon 9 rocket will need a new fairing and engine upgrades before it is ready for the first geosynchronous mission?
The second thing I don’t get is how SpaceX manages to make ends meet on its current, leisurely launch schedule. As of mid-2011, the company has taken in about a billion dollars since its inception. Most of the money came from NASA, but the space agency’s payments are tied to performance milestones and right now SpaceX is running years late on its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contract. I recognize the company got additional payments from NASA following its successful first launch under the COTS contract in December, but it’s so over budget and behind schedule on the remaining two demonstration launches that company executives are pressing the space agency to collapse them into a single mission. Even if NASA goes along, how can SpaceX keep up with the high rate of cash burn resulting from taking on hundreds of new employees and operating in a place like California? Inquiring minds want know.
Incidentally, Lexington Institute would be happy to run any response to these questions that SpaceX wants to send us, without editorial comment, as long as they stick to the issues rather than offering conspiracy theories on why I pose perfectly legitimate questions about a major federal contractor.
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