Shotwell: About That 4,000 Satellite Internet Constellation…Well…

Gwynne Shotwell
Gwynne Shotwell

Speaking at a satellite convention in Hong Kong on Tuesday, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell downplayed the company’s commitment to building a 4,000 satellite constellation to deliver Internet around the world.

Addressing CASBAA’s convention Oct. 27, Shotwell sought to dispel the impression that SpaceX — already busy returning from a launch failure with an upgraded rocket, developing a Falcon Heavy variant, upgrading its Dragon cargo freighter to carry crew for NASA — was moving full-speed-ahead with what would almost certainly be a multibillion-dollar investment in satellites.

“I would say that this is actually very speculative at this point,” Shotwell said of the satellite Internet idea. “We don’t have a lot of effort going into that right now.

“Certainly I think that from a technical perspective this could get done. But can we develop the technology and roll it out with a lower-cost methodology so that we can beat the prices of existing providers like Comcast and Time Warner and other people? It’s not clear that the business case will work,” Shotwell said.

The story also mentions that Shotwell has always said that the $1 billion investment that SpaceX received from Google and Fidelity Investments has gone into the space company’s treasury for company purposes and has not been earmarked for the satellite constellation program.

  • waseem

    yeah, we know. Such news are mainly marketing gimmics. Stay in news is like staying alive.

  • mfck

    Well, obviously, little to be told about business viability of this constellation, before you know whether you have a reusable LV which flies frequently. Then there’re the aforementioned ‘prior commitments’ SX took upon themselves.

    They did, however, open a new office in Redmond…

  • mattmcc80

    The story also mentions that Shotwell has always said that the $1
    billion investment that SpaceX received from Google and Fidelity
    Investments has gone into the space company’s treasury for company
    purposes and has not been earmarked for the satellite constellation
    program.

    Er, so they were handed $1B with no conditions on how it was supposed to be spent? That seems rather odd. I’m sure there’s a good story behind how that transaction came to pass.

  • MachineAgeChronicle

    People should realize that much of what SpaceX and Musk says is “very speculative”. He is just better at it than Branson.

    very speculative

  • duheagle

    Story of how that came to pass:

    1. Elon starts SpaceX with $100 million and grows it to a market value of $11 billion in a dozen years.

    2. A lot of people wonder what he might do in the next dozen years, starting from where he is now, with a slush fund 10 times as big.

    3. Google and Fidelity won the bidding to provide the funds.

    End of story.

    Is it really so hard to appreciate the degree to which SpaceX is a primo investment opportunity – if only you could get in on it? The guys at Google know a little something about turning good ideas and modest sums of money into huge fortunes. They obviously recognize Elon as a fellow alchemist.

    The real story there, though, is the 10% of the investment that came from Fidelity. Fidelity is no wild-eyed plunger; they handle “widder ‘n orphan” money. If the grey suits at Fidelity and the wonks at Google both agree on something, you might charitably assume they know what they’re doing.

  • duheagle

    I believe the term of art for Ms. Shotwell’s remarks is “poor-mouthing” – talking down one’s own prospects so as to lull competitors into a false sense of security. People in the pro sports world have been poor-mouthing as a tactic since before Ty Cobb was in knickers.

  • Yugo Reventlov

    Well, Google & Fidelity did get shares in return.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Agreed. It’ll be interesting how the tone changes when F9 is landing regularly in one piece.

  • tdperk
  • Do you think perhaps rockets are not capable of landing in one piece?

    It seems to me to be wishful thinking to the extreme to think like that.

  • TimAndrews868

    “Er, so they were handed $1B with no conditions on how it was supposed to be spent? That seems rather odd. I”

    That’s not at all what the article claims she said.
    Denying that it’s earmarked specifically for the satellite constellation is not the same as saying it came with no strings attached.

  • TimAndrews868

    It’s realistic to consider as a possibility that they either won’t be able to reliably land them, or even if they can reliably land them, the costs of refurbishment for reliable re-flight may exceed the costs of building new.

  • Sure it is. Cleaning a hydrocarbon engine must cost much more than building an entirely new engine. Or in this case, nine entirely new engines. Hint: I don’t take you seriously,

    I’m certain Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos don’t take you seriously either, and are more concerned with making it work than they are thinking up all the possible ways it won’t work. What you think of are the ways it can fail, and then fix that problem.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    On the contrary, I am very much on the side of the argument that believes SpaceX will succeed in the near future and then go on to revolutionise the costs of space launch.

    On the subject of refurbishment, I think Musk has said he is confident that even RP1 engines can perform 10 launches and landings before coking might become a problem – I think based on cumulative test firings. There is the unknown of the thermal stress of repetitive expansion and contraction of some of the “engine bay” structure. All in all, I do not follow the reasoning of the “cost of refurbishment will be prohibitive” argument. I see no reason why an affordable engineering solution could not be found to allow several consecutive flights with no more than cautionary inspection and no significant maintenance and so almost no refurbishment cost.

  • Sam Moore

    There’s plenty of precedent for this kind of statement being premature. Attempts at SSME, Shuttle SRB, Ariane I first stage, Zenit booster and Falcon 1 first stage reuse all either failed to make an economic difference or just failed.

  • Carl Davies

    All of which used a different methodology to F 9 and NONE that got anywhere NEAR as close as Spacex did

  • Vladislaw

    I highly doubt these were “off the cuff” type of comments. I can only imagine that there is a strategic reason for SpaceX to be down playing the satelite enterprise. Two proto types are being built and will soon fly and test.. then it will be simply ramping up a production line.

  • TimAndrews868

    “Cleaning a hydrocarbon engine must cost much more than building an entirely new engine.”

    I’m thinking more along the lines of things like inspecting a strut that’s been fatigued from flight and is installed inside a LOX tank being more expensive than passing a new one through QC and installing it in the tank during assembly.

    There is a lot yet to be learned about what conditions the boosters are in after each flight.
    The only way to really know that, is to land them and re-fly them – and redesign as needed to address problems – which is exactly what they are doing.

  • Taking off, flying and landing an airliner involves a lot more continuous stresses, metal fatigue and impact stresses than launching a rocket. Designing and developing one is considerably more complex and costly as well.

    In the future, design iteration of launch vehicles is going to be greatly accelerated by the very nature of their design. The first thing that will disappear is the internal helium, except for possibly the legs and the chill down cycle.

    You will very quickly see reusable payload fairings or no payload fairings at all. Many other innovations are possible.

  • They just haven’t tried hard enough. Have you heard any of the statements coming out of NASA lately. They don’t believe.

    Hence, SLS and Orion.

  • I agree, with the addition that it was designed that way from the beginning. He will surely try to demonstrate that on the very first reflight. I don’t buy into complete disassembly and inspection.

  • TimAndrews868

    “They just haven’t tried hard enough.”
    Not so much as they just haven’t tried enough yet. They’ve only made 2 real landing attempts from orbital launches. It’s barely the beginning.

  • A Japanese RLV made a bunch of landings. DC-X made several landings. SpaceX alone has made several successful pinpoint landings on the water. Blue Origin has a flight worthy engine that can throttle down to 20 percent, which will trivialize landings.

    Landings are no longer the problem. It is just awaiting confirmation. Again, your pessimism is extraordinary.

  • PK Sink

    All true. But they have come so close to landing so quickly that even ULA and Arianspace are now bragging that they invented reuse first. They just seem to have misplaced those darn drawings.

  • Kapitalist

    Gwynne tries to run a real business. But this mischief little imp which owns it all, keeps making up impossible claims with his big mouth.

    Gwy in meeting with Elon:
    “-Now, you bend over and take your pants off! And I’ll slap your ass until it is as red as Mars, with Valles Marineris in the middle of it and your two small moons dingling around. 4,000 satellites you said? That happens to be exactly how many times I will whip you, you will count them one by one. If you really want to die on Mars, you need to learn how to survive on Earth, you stupid little boy!”

  • windbourne

    Zero chance of either. They have already been doing this with Grasshopper. In fact, the only reason why they have not landed correctly, is because they are landing on a rocking ship. If landing on land , they would have succeeded already.

  • windbourne

    Economic failure is radically different than tim’s response. Basically, he said that it will fail to happen, which is impossible. Not only has Grasshopper landed from high up and with sweeping winds, but they have reused the unit.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I was thinking that the return to flight, and F9H are soaking up more money than they expected. Or along those lines but slightly different, the new inspection and test regime they will need to operate under from now on are soaking up the funds for the satellite project.

  • Aegis Maelstrom

    I would not be so sure. You need some hard to obtain numbers to know if the business case for a global sat network provifing Internet access can be closed.

    One problem is (and I will keep on repeating it), this is a US-centered site, similar to other US-centered sites and many people on such fora use themselves as a target customer and USA as a benchmark: in terms of demand, competition and market prices and extrapolate. Unfortunately, USA makes a very poor benchmark due to the lack of competition, quite dispersed population and high demand – which all make consumers in US screwed. In my place, you can get a decent package with a healthy dose of pay TV channels, multiroom, PVR with HDD, wifi router, VOD, TV-on-the-Internet and a Fiber 250 Mbps unlimited Internet for a whooping price of 27 US Dollars per month. Twenty. Seven. Dollars.
    For 20-25 bucks extra you can get HBO and other premium channels with their VODs etc. For 10 USD per month you can get a good LTE SIM card. Compare that with 60, 80 USD that U.S. city consumers pay for a mere cable Internet.

    You need mobility or cannot count on a fixed line? For 20 USD you can easily get LTE plan with 80GB per month, VODs, extras, free nights and whatnots. And this LTE actually usually has a coverage. You need something simplier – sure, just pay less. And of course they will cross-sell you a nice package of e.g. Sat TV + a number of SIM cards for peanuts.

    Bottom line is: in other places Internet is already cheap and available. This is U.S. consumer who is exploited.

    Generally in the world cellular networks are common, familiar to the customer and still upgraded. The people ready to pay for their Internet usually have it. Any satellite solution would face a strong competition or would really need to address niche user cases (and compete with other sats).

    What is more, the majority of world population lives in highly populated areas. Remote town in rocky mountains or northern Canada is not the most popular use case. And dense areas make LTE and fiber really cheap.

    Then, if you want to operate globally you need to tailor and sell your services globally. Providing them is not enough.

    Finally, there are already active sat providers and the new ones want to come: with their global networks or just unused capacities.

    All of these things basically killed a number of sat solutions (from Iridium to less-known Arab sat networks).

    So, at a first glance, it is not that obvious that Internet sats are a killing.

  • Aegis Maelstrom

    This, but it is just a tip of the iceberg.

    As others hinted, the delays in delivery may disrupt a business plan and create a huge dent in the cash flow which needs to be mitigated now.
    According to the earlier news, SpaceX is supposed to have their spacecraft production seriously ramped up – wasn’t it 2+ launches a month? Wouldn’t it mean they have already a pile of ready rockets etc. waiting to send which look like hunderds of millions of frozen assets?

    Other thing is, we don’t know what the business plan was and how advanced it was. We don’t know the strings attached and the role of SpaceX and etc. Google. While Fidelity should be a financial investor, I would not be so sure about it while thinking of Google. Google has a lot of incentives to work on expanding Internet market, but also to control it.

    One example: Google already somewhat controls a global ecosystem of mobile devices, customer services (like Youtube) and some corpo/institutional services (docs, mail). However, they are big gaps – e.g. network carriers stand between Google and customers – they introduce their Android variants, they bill the customers and capture a lot of money, they are a strategic threat.
    Now imagine that Google offers a world-wide network with own (or franchised) handsets, with OS, services etc…

    Satellites are the easiest way to do that and a long-term investment and partnership with a launcher, spacecraft provider or an operator (like Intelsat) makes a perfect sense. And if you can have all of them in a package – this is even sweeter.

    From a MBA standpoint this is a huge opportunity and many plans are possible.

  • TimAndrews868

    “They have already been doing this with Grasshopper”

    No, they have only landed Grasshopper and Dev1 R from low altitude flights, never from super-sonic velocity and atmospheric re-entry. The two barge landings are the two first attempts of any pure retro-propulsion landing under those conditions. They are breaking new ground.

    A pitching barge definitely adds complication, but it wasn’t responsible for underestimating hydraulic fluid capacities or stiction in gimbals that SpaceX cited as the cause of the crashes.

  • TimAndrews868

    “A Japanese RLV made a bunch of landings. DC-X made several landings. ”

    There have been many retropropulsive landings – going back to Apollo on the moon and the LLRV on Earth up through systems like Masten’s and Morpheus.

    None of them have made super-sonic flights into space, re-entered and landed retropropulsively. SpaceX is going where others have only dreamed.

    “SpaceX alone has made several successful pinpoint landings on the water.”

    Not pinpoint, and that’s part of the problem. If they don’t have to worry about landing in a specific spot, they can make 0 m/s velocity in a vertical position after all that free-fall. It’s hitting the target that’s been the challenge, but each time they’ve tried, they’ve found a specific reason for the failure and been provided a potential solution – they are making definite progress.

    “Blue Origin has a flight worthy engine that can throttle down to 20 percent, which will trivialize landings.

    Landings are no longer the problem. It is just awaiting confirmation. Again, your pessimism is extraordinary.”

    SpaceX isn’t going to use Blue Origin’s engines. Even so, since neither of the two solid landing attempt failures were attributed to limits of the throttle range, that wouldn’t solve the problems they’ve had.

    That still leaves economics of refurbishment. Both the space shuttle and DC-X produced real-world results showing refurbishment to re-fly costing much more than anticipated at the design stage.

    SpaceX has the benefit of knowing what roadblocks there were on previous designs and working around them, so I do expect they’re going to eventually achieve reusability and do so with at least some economic benefit, but there still is a real possibility that they won’t. Even Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX CEO says “if” when talking about economical re-use.

  • TimAndrews868

    “Have you heard any of the statements coming out of NASA lately. They don’t believe. Hence, SLS and Orion.”

    If NASA didn’t believe in SpaceX, they wouldn’t have funded the development of Dragon or Crew Dragon.

    It’s congress pushing SLS and Orion, funding SLS with more money than NASA says the program needs, and under-funding Commercial Crew, with less money than NASA wants to spend on them.

  • TimAndrews868

    “Economic failure is radically different than tim’s response. Basically, he said that it will fail to happen, which is impossible. ”

    No sir, I did not. I do expect SpaceX to succeed both in landing Falcon9 boosters, and in re-using them economically.

    What I do not believe is that it is beyond a shadow of a doubt impossible for them to fail at either of those goals.

    SpaceX came incredibly close to going out of business due to launch failures before some literally last-minute financial wrangling gave it brief life-support before its first successful payload making it to orbit on a Falcon 1.

    I don’t believe failure is at all likely, but it is possible.

  • Tonya

    Indeed, and with Google the money arrived with a seat on the SpaceX board to keep an eye on their investment.

  • It was NASA who designed SLS and Orion.

    What we have here is the complete breakdown of reason and loss of sanity of one of our most distinguished federal scientific institutions. This is not a very pretty sight to see.

    Enjoy the show. It looks like it’s going to be a very long show.

  • SpaceX is going to this place (orbital VLVL RLVs) because of one and only one single reason. They were the first to try.

    Do you know how long it took just to get billionaires interested in space? This has been a long standing NASA problem.

  • windbourne

    yeah, it was gwynn that has built 6+ businesses and changed the world with 4 of them.

  • satman

    Check out the SpaceX Help Wanted for the Redmond office….its all comsat oriented. Lots of new hires. “say one thing, do another” ?

  • satman

    SpaceX will learn how to build and launch LEO’s with their two prototype birds as per their FCC filing. Samsung has a high bandwidth satellite system design (LEO) and thy have the where with all to build LEO’s and mass produce user terminals. As a Ka-band filing, SX will avoid much of the criticism that the GEO operators are expressing about OneWeb’s Ku-band filing because of the potential for interference to Ku-band transponders as the LEO crosses the equator. So SX just needs to concentrate on manufacturing a RLV and cooperate with Samsung on the satellite design/build. SX will build out strategically placed gateway earth stations at NAP’s and Samsung will handle the customer terminal side and do deals with the cellco’s who will be the customer interface. Elon is one smart dude and IMHO he will let OneWeb stumble out of the shut first and when they falter, execute a killer business plan.

  • Aegis Maelstrom

    With all due respect but “changed the world”?

    Elon Musk’s endavours are nice American businesses but PayPal or Tesla Motors are hardly existant outside of U.S.

    For instance PayPal is a solution for extraorbitant banking fees and customer service straight from 1950s served by U.S. banks. In Europe you can use it but in 99% of the cases you just make money transfers, in Internet, from your banking account (regular account, credit card account, overdraft account – whatever applicable). Domestic for free, overseas for peanuts. Or a shop uses one of a number of payment accepting facilities.

    Tesla Motors? Waiting to see a single unit in my place.

    What are the other business except of that? Solarsomething?

    The same thing can be with sats with Internet access. In the world of a developed market people use LTE, HSDPA, WiMax/…, competing cable and landline networks. You need a good business analysis to know what is on and what is timeworthy.

  • windbourne

    wow. You are kidding. Right?

    While money orders happened all over the world and for a LONG TIME, it was always done on a private network. Basically, it counted on security through obscurity. And BTW, it was not always successful.

    Paypal was the first to go for making this happen on the internet when many said that it can not/should not be done.
    Most importantly, it was because of paypal, that banks came to the internet. Even now, it was because of Paypal that so many businesses were able to come to the internet.
    Paypal remains the largest on-line money order system going. That is changing the world.

    Tesla? Prior to Tesla, NOBODY was making EVs. Nissan was not going to make the leaf. Chevy was not going back to the EVs. It was Musk and Tesla that is FORCING all other car makers to change. GM has the volt which is another gas fired POS which increases electricity demand during the daytime (just like the I3, leaf, etc).
    So, now, Chevy is coming out with the Bolt, which is an EV that will do 200 MPC. Why? Because Tesla remains the highest demand vehicle in the world. There is a real reason why CU gave them the highest rating ever. Likewise, Tesla broke a number of safety testing machines. Basically, the Model S is the world’s safest car EVER made. All of this is changing the world. Faraday is another quiet EV company in silicon valley. Apple and Google are ramping up EVs. Aston Martin just announced that they will work with China to develop an EV. 4 different Chinese companies are coming to Silicon valley to be close to Tesla (and Faraday, apple, and google).
    Who was behind all this? Tesla. Heck, to this day, there is NO EV that even comes close to Tesla. And just because you live in a poor place does not mean squat.

    None of that includes that fact that Tesla’s new li-ion plant will DOUBLE the production of li-ion batteries in the world. And this is their FIRST factory. How much impact has this made? Well, Chinese gov has stepped up massively to compete against TESLA. Not USA. Not the West. TESLA. They are scared to death that Tesla’s new battery factory will pull all production to America, which their goal is to destroy the west. Tesla expects to make over .5M cars by 2020, and 1M by 2025. That puts them in the top 10 car makers in the world. And that does not include the fact that Tesla is selling batteries to homes and businesses. That is impacting the world.

    Solar City? They are simply the world’s largest installer of PVs. The model that they produced is the leasing system which other companies follow now. That has allowed them to put systems on homes, such as mine (I have a 10KW system from them). We buy our electricity from them at a fixed price while our utilities and a number of GOP are squirming about this. Now, at this time, they are the cheapest installer of solar panels in the world, with 2 caveats. American gov and Utilities run the costs of installation all the way up to making America one of the most expensive (INSANE). There are some gov groups that have dropped their costs, but they will charge a lot of money for installs. And utilities are fighting solar installs on homes/businesses since it means that they are not using their grid (i.e. the utility is losing profits ). So, these companies fight it tooth and nail.

    In addition, SC is the largest importer of Solar Panels from China. That is about to Change. SC is finishing a 1 GW factory in NY. Once it is up and running, they will start building more factories around the nation and then around the world. This also has Chinese gov scared. They are about to lose 25% of their solar panel exports. This is causing China to force installing more panel in China. SC is changing the world as well.

    And now, we have SpaceX. Are you really going to claim that SpaceX is NOT changing the launch industry? Are you really claiming that Russia, China, Europe, and even ULA, and Orbital are not concerned about what SpaceX and the F9, F9R, FH, FHR, and BFR are doing, going to do with the launch industry? Seriously?

  • windbourne

    Do not forget BFR, Rapptor, and Dragon V2, along with multiple launch sites. So MUCH going on.

  • windbourne

    No, they are NOT breaking new ground WRT speed.
    Look, they brought the rockets to as slow of speeds as they did with grasshopper. As such, this is not a speed issue.

    As to the issues, the first one, with lack of fluid was due to the fact that they are having to do massive amounts of engine swings on the gimbal with this landing, vs. the land landing. Why? it was not due to speeds. It was due to having to adjust for a pitching landing site.

    Now, the second one is because the gimbal stuck. IOW, it could not respond fast enough. How did they figure it out that the gimbal was sticking? Because the engine did not move fast enough to correct to the landing site, to deal with the pitching.
    All in all, if the ship was not pitching and rolling, then the gimbal would be fast enough and they would have had plenty of fluids.

    All in all, musk is trying to fix the problem at the rocket, when in fact, the right answer is to solve it with the ships.

  • TimAndrews868

    ” lack of fluid was due to the fact that they are having to do massive amounts of engine swings on the gimbal with this landing, vs. the land landing.”

    Completely not true. The hydraulic fluid system used for the grid fins ran out of fluid. It has nothing to do with engine gimbaling, which worked on up through impact. It was short because the amount of control needed in free-fall to keep the booster on target to the barge was greater than expected. That is also why the final burn needed to do more position correction than desired, and why the booster was still moving laterally when it hit the barge – trying to get to the target location by gimbaling. None of those issues had to do with the barge rocking at sea.

    “Now, the second one is because the gimbal stuck. IOW, it could not respond fast enough. How did they figure it out that the gimbal was sticking? Because the engine did not move fast enough to correct to the landing site, to deal with the pitching.”

    Again not to do with a pitching deck, but getting the booster to the landing location. It’s easy to see in the videos.

    “All in all, musk is trying to fix the problem at the rocket, when in fact, the right answer is to solve it with the ships.”

    It sounds like you’re sure you understand the problem better than Musk and the thousands of engineers who have the actual telemetry data to analyze, and come to the conclusions of what cause the crashes. Somehow, I don’t think that is the case.