Sunday, June 25, 2017

SpaceX Seeks to Execute Back-to-Back Launches in Roughly 48 Hours: Elon Musk’s company aims to pull off two commercial satellite launches from opposite coasts

The Wall Street Journal
By Andy Pasztor
June 25, 2017 10:27 a.m. ET

Elon Musk’s SpaceX on Sunday will seek to complete a two-day, bicoastal demonstration of launch capability, completing its second unmanned mission since Friday in what would be the high-water mark for the company’s operational prowess.

After using previously-flown main engines to blast a Bulgarian telecommunications satellite into orbit Friday from a Florida launchpad, the closely held company is slated Sunday afternoon to use a California Air Force base to send a batch of 10 smaller satellites into space for Iridium Communications Inc. Iridium is SpaceX’s largest commercial customer.

If successful, Sunday’s blastoff would mark the shortest time between launches in SpaceX’s history. As the ninth launch of 2017, it also would represent a record for annual launches by the company, officially called Space Exploration Technologies Corp. It launched successfully eight times in 2016, before an explosion during routine ground testing temporarily grounded the Falcon 9 fleet.

SpaceX has rebounded strongly since that accident, alleviating many of the reliability concerns expressed privately by government and industry officials. But perhaps more than any previous benchmark, this weekend’s activities are expected to provide the strongest sign yet that SpaceX is on track to overcome years of nagging schedule slips by continuing to ramp up its launch tempo.

The main portion of the rocket that flew Friday made a successful vertical landing on a floating platform, a once-unimagined feat that is increasingly becoming a routine ending for SpaceX launches. Sunday’s mission also is slated to feature such a return.

With an aggressive summer and fall launch schedule, SpaceX officials are looking to rack up a total of roughly two dozen launches by the of the year. Previous internal projections showed as many as 27 launches for all of 2017, nearly doubling to a total of 52 in 2019.

But the financial results of flying used boosters remain uncertain. Mr. Musk and some of his top lieutenants initially projected huge price cuts. Then SpaceX officials talked about price reductions of slightly more than one-tenth of the $62 million official Falcon 9 launch price tag. Internal financial documents prepared more than a year ago projected that the combination of reduced prices and refurbishment costs would trim the company’s net income by roughly 20% between 2016 and 2020.

More recently, according to rivals and industry officials tracking the company’s launch prices, SpaceX officials aren’t offering any discounts to entice some customers to put their satellites on top of refurbished boosters. Instead, the company is offering to move them up in the packed schedule for getting a ride to space, these officials said.

A SpaceX spokesman couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Matt Desch, Iridium’s CEO, has made no secret of his willingness to accept refurbished boosters if that would speed up deployment of his 70-plus satellite constellation, which is currently expected to be completed by mid-2018. Mr. Desch also told reporters on a recent conference call that further price cuts could help persuade him to switch to reused hardware, according to trade publication Space News.

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