SpaceX on a Roll

View from the International Space Station of the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft as the robotic arm moves Dragon into place for attachment to the station May 25, 2012. (Credit: NASA)
View from the International Space Station of the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft as the robotic arm moves Dragon into place for attachment to the station May 25, 2012. (Credit: NASA)

Continuing our look at recent U.S. launches, we turn our gaze to Elon Musk’s scrappy start-up, SpaceX.

In poker terms, the California-based company now holds three of a kind….three 5’s, that is. They’ve had 5 largely successful flights of its Falcon 9 rocket (with one secondary payload placed in the wrong orbit), 5 flights of the Grasshopper test bed, and 5 flights of the Falcon 1 rocket with a pair of successes and a trio of failures. There also have been four successful flights and recoveries of the Dragon spacecraft.
The table below shows SpaceX’s launch history since its first flight in 2006.

SpaceX Launch History

#DateVehicleSiteObjectiveResult
15Jun 14, 2013GrasshopperMcGregor Flight Test: Vertical Takeoff/LandingSuccess
14Apr 19, 2013GrasshopperMcGregorFlight Test: Vertical Takeoff/LandingSuccess
13Mar 07, 2013GrasshopperMcGregorFlight Test: Vertical Takeoff/LandingSuccess
12Mar 01, 2013Falcon 9 & DragonCCAFSDragon Cargo Flight to ISS & RecoverySuccess
11Dec 17, 2012GrasshopperMcGregorFlight Test: Vertical Takeoff/LandingSuccess
10Nov 01, 2012GrasshopperMcGregorFlight Test: Vertical Takeoff/LandingSuccess
09Oct 07, 2012Falcon 9 & DragonCCAFSDragon Cargo Flight to ISS & Recovery Success
08May 22, 2012Falcon 9 & DragonCCAFSDragon Demo Flight to ISS & RecoverySuccess
07Dec 08, 2010Falcon 9 & DragonCCAFSDragon Demo Flight & RecoverySuccess
06Jun 04, 2010Falcon 9CCAFSFalcon 9 Test FlightSuccess
05Jul 14, 2009Falcon 1Reagan TSRazakSatSuccess
04Sep 28, 2008Falcon 1Reagan TSPayload Mass SimulatorSuccess
03Aug 02, 2008Falcon 1Reagan TSTrailblazer, Presat, Nanosail-DFailure
02March 21, 2007Falcon 1Reagan TSDemoSatFailure
01March 24, 2006Falcon 1Reagan TSFalconSAT2Failure

Things didn’t start very well for the company, with the first three Falcon 1 flights failing. But, Musk and his team turned things around with the fourth launch, which the SpaceX founder has since admitted was a make or break one for the company. They have not had a catastrophic failure since.

So, what lies ahead for the company? Lots. The company has 41 launches listed on its manifest through 2018. This list includes 10 Dragon cargo resupply missions for NASA to the International Space Station and a number of commercial and government satellites.

SpaceX Launch Manifest

(Year indicates vehicle arrival at launch site)

2013

1MDA Corp. (Canada)Vandenberg
Falcon 9
2SES (Europe)Cape Canaveral
Falcon 9
3Thaicom (Thailand)Cape Canaveral
Falcon 9
4NASA Resupply to ISS – Flight 3Cape Canaveral
Dragon & Falcon 9
5ORBCOMM Cape Canaveral
Falcon 9

2014

6ORBCOMMCape Canaveral
Falcon 9
7Falcon Heavy Demo FlightVandenberg
Falcon Heavy
8AsiaSatCape Canaveral
Falcon 9
9AsiaSatCape Canaveral
Falcon 9
10NASA Resupply to ISS – Flight 4Cape Canaveral
Dragon & Falcon 9
11NASA Resupply to ISS – Flight 5Cape Canaveral
Dragon & Falcon 9
12NASA Resupply to ISS – Flight 6Cape Canaveral
Dragon & Falcon 9
13Space Systems/LoralCape Canaveral
Falcon 9
14Thales Alenia Space/TurkmenistanCape Canaveral
Falcon 9
15DSCOVR (USAF)Cape Canaveral
Falcon 9
16CONAE (Argentina)Vandenberg
Falcon 9
17Asia Broadcast Satellite/SatmexCape Canaveral
Falcon 9

2015

18Jason-3 for NASAVandenberg
Falcon 9
19NASA Resupply to ISS – Flight 7Cape Canaveral
Falcon 9
20NSPO (Taiwan)Vandenberg
Falcon 9
21Spacecom (Israel)Cape Canaveral
Falcon 9
22NASA Resupply to ISS – Flight 8Cape Canaveral
Dragon & Falcon 9
23NASA Resupply to ISS – Flight 9Cape Canaveral
Dragon & Falcon 9
24NASA Resupply to ISS – Flight 10Cape Canaveral
Dragon & Falcon 9
25Bigelow AerospaceCape Canaveral
Falcon 9
26SES (Europe)Cape Canaveral
Falcon 9
27CONAE (Argentina)Vandenberg
Falcon 9
28Iridium – Flight 1Vandenberg
Falcon 9
29Iridium – Flight 2Vandenberg
Falcon 9
30STP-2 US Air ForceCape Canaveral
Falcon Heavy
31Asia Broadcast Satellite/SatmexCape Canaveral
Falcon 9
32IntelsatCape Canaveral
Falcon Heavy

2016

33NASA Resupply to ISS – Flight 11Cape Canaveral
Dragon & Falcon 9
34NASA Resupply to ISS – Flight 12Cape Canaveral
Dragon & Falcon 9
35Iridium – Flight 3Vandenberg
Falcon 9
36DragonLab Mission 1Cape Canaveral
Dragon & Falcon 9
37Iridium – Flight 4Vandenberg
Falcon 9
38Iridium – Flight 5Cape Canaveral
Falcon 9

2017

39Iridium – Flight 6Vandenberg
Falcon 9
40Iridium – Flight 7Vandenberg
Falcon 9

2018

41DragonLab Mission 2Cape Canaveral
Dragon & Falcon 9

Of the 41 launches, 38 of them will be conducted using the medium-lift Falcon 9 launch vehicles and three with the Falcon Heavy rocket. A Falcon Heavy demo flight is currently scheduled for 2014.

Meanwhile, the Falcon 9 continues to evolve. A larger version of the rocket with more powerful engines is set to make its debut later this year. SpaceX’s eventual goal is to recover both stages of the rocket for reuse.

Twelve Dragon missions are on the manifest through 2018, 10 to deliver cargo to ISS and two stand-alone flights of DragonLab, which will carry microgravity experiments into orbit.

Additional Dragon flights could be added to the manifest if NASA selects SpaceX to become a provider of crew transportation services to ISS under the Commercial Crew Program. The company could make the first demo flight of a human-rated Dragon as early as 2015.

SpaceX might add even more flights to this manifest once it gets certified to launch U.S. military and national security payloads. It will be several years before it can compete in this lucrative market.

The big question is whether SpaceX can conduct all these launches as planned. Musk’s company has big ambitions, but its schedule has had an unfortunately tendency to slide to the right. With its rockets and Dragon freighter still evolving and the company deep into NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, SpaceX has yet to reach a point where it can produce and launch its rockets on a regular timetable like ULA and Arianespace.

There is an enormous amount of work ahead for SpaceX’s relatively young workforce, which is accustomed to routinely putting in 60 hour weeks. Burnout and turnover rates are of definite concern as the launch rate increases.