Customers Edgy as SpaceX’s Schedule Slips; Falcon Heavy Flight Delayed Again

Falcon 9 launch (Credit: SpaceX)
Falcon 9 launch (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX’s customers are again experiencing the effects of Elon Musk’s focus on continuous upgrades to its Falcon 9 rocket as launch dates slide to the right. Meanwhile, the long-delayed debut of the company’s 28-engine Falcon Heavy vehicle has been postponed by at least five more months.

SpaceX’s silence on the schedule delays of its Falcon 9 Upgrade rocket, whose inaugural flight on Dec. 21 was a success, is causing ripples of concern among commercial customers, which like NASA are counting on a high launch cadence in 2016 to meet these companies’ schedule milestones, industry officials said.

The next flight of the Falcon 9 Upgrade, also known as Falcon 9 v1.2, is ostensibly dedicated to the 5,300-kilogram SES-9 telecommunications satellite, headed to geostationary transfer orbit.

That mission, scheduled for September, has been repeatedly delayed as Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX made final checks on the new-version rocket, which provides 30 percent more power than the Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket it is replacing….

Industry officials are now openly speculating that the launch will not occur until March. The effect of another month’s delay might be minimal for SES – although the company’s 2016 revenue forecast includes substantial SES-9 revenue. But the knock-on effects on the rest of the SpaceX manifest for 2016 may be more important….

On Jan. 30, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk, in remarks at Texas A&M University on the SpaceX-backed competition to design future fast passenger ground transportation, said the Falcon Heavy “is supposed to launch toward the end of this year. I’d say maybe late September.”

SpaceX has originally set an early 2013 date for the first Falcon Heavy flight. The most recent estimate had the heavy-lift vehicle scheduled for April.

SpaceX’s busiest launch year was in 2015, when it flew seven times. One of those flights exploded after launch, resulting in a six month stand down for the Falcon 9.

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  • TomDPerkins

    “Wasn’t simply poor QC on a single part.”

    Yes it was. Solely caused by bad QC by a vendor.

  • JamesG

    Naw, if I grew up I wouldn’t bother with this space stuff. Turn up the gain on your sarcasm detector.

  • JamesG

    “Progress requires risk is a good catch phrase, but it’s a lot more complicated than that”

    No it’s really not. You can have the Nanny State make sure everyone stays nice and safe. And no one except a few chosen few government employees will ever go to space. We’ll all die of old age or get hit by the proverbial bus instead. Is that what you want?

  • JamesG

    Hardly.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Its to be expected as that is how you develop software, a constant stream of minor changes. But it will be interesting to see how it works for rockets which exist in a different technical environment.

  • James

    Sarcasm…..SARCASM! THERE IS NO SARCASM THIS IS THE INTERNET!

    In all seriousness when a person says they can prove the world is flat because everyone who sails the seas is in on the conspiracy and on GPS satellites can stay in the sky etc…..internets kills sarcasm.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The fact that Jeff Bezos flew the New Shepard again so quickly shows it is doable. I expect his team of DC-X veterans will just fly it over and over like they did the DC-X.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    Not to defend Orbital but they need to put new engines in their rocket. All SpaceX had to do was figure out what went wrong and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

  • Michael J. Listner

    All that cash they been buried in has been going to maintain infrastructure for two launch systems per government requirements. Annoying detail, but it is the way it is.

  • ReSpaceAge

    So since they are shutting down Delta they are happy to give the 8000M up correct? Wasn’t that the point of Mr. Bruno’s not bidding? Wasn’t it, to get the Atlas engines over Delta? I would think ULA wants Falcon Heavy to fly so they can shut the whole line down. Seems to me SpaceX taking their sweet time with FH leaves everyone in quite a pickle 🙂

  • TimR

    They have already static test fired it. They inspected it, and fired it. A static test fire is performed on their launch vehicles a couple days before launch. The Core could still be near flight ready (sans the #9 engine). Now that a static test fire has been performed, it has eliminated the chance to inspect the conditions from just the launch and return.

  • Michael J. Listner

    The point of Bruno not bidding was several factors. Primarily, it was about the restrictions on the RD-180 and that all their available engines were already slated for contracted launches. Secondarily, there were questions about whether ULA’s accounting system would be compatible with the RFP and there was concern the criteria was price only and did not take into account past performance. IMHO, this competitive bid was stacked to give Space X and easy win and validate the new “competitive” market.

  • Jeff2Space

    If SpaceX is successful at re-flying first stages, then this is actually very fortunate for their customers. Their customers can fly on a flight proven first stage and SpaceX could increase production of second stages, which are expendable, to increase the flight rate.

  • Jeff2Space

    NASA is also considering flying astronauts in Orion on the very first flight of the new upper stage for SLS. How’s that for “flight proven”? 🙁

  • Jeff2Space

    No doubt SpaceX made some of the improvements to F9 to increase reliability. Ultimately the changes being made to better support reuse of the first stage will result in re-flying a flight proven first stage. This will help reduce “infant mortality” problems over a much more expensive expendable that has to rely almost solely on “quality control” during manufacturing for its reliability.

  • Jeff2Space

    Agreed. NASA is contemplating flying a crew in Orion on the very first flight of the new SLS upper stage. This results in a “failure is not an option” culture which drives up costs and stretches out schedules. There really is no perfect substitute for flight testing.

  • Jeff2Space

    When a guy trying to sell a new album makes ridiculous claims that go viral on the Internet, he makes more money. Follow the money trail; it will lead you to the truth.

  • Jeff2Space

    And yet without the same $800 million a year subsidy to “maintain infrastructure”, SpaceX has built two Falcon launch sites (Cape Canaveral AFB and Vandenberg AFB) and is building two more (Kennedy Space Center and a brand new facility in South Texas).

    In reality, ULA has been milking a cash cow for decades. They’ve kept flying the same vehicles in the name of reliability while their engineers wrote papers about next generation systems like the ACES upper stage, LOX/LH2 fuel depots, and etc.

  • Jeff2Space

    Put another way, the very high bid they would have had to submit for a Delta launch (compared to the cost of an Atlas launch) would have been turned down flat.

    The other reason was to highlight the lack of availability of a domestic “drop in” replacement RD-180 to encourage the politicians to lift the ban on RD-180 imports. It worked. ULA promptly placed an order for new RD-180 engines from Russia as soon as it became legal (again) to do so.

  • Steve Ksiazek

    Incoming parts inspection is the responsibility of SpaceX. Perhaps you only need to inspect a portion of the incoming parts before they reach the production line, based on prior quality metrics from the same supplier, but it’s still your responsibility if a bad part gets into your finished product.

  • pathfinder_01

    The difference between F9, Atlas and the shuttle is that new versions of the rocket can be flown before putting humans on board. They can carry satelights.

  • ReSpaceAge
  • ReSpaceAge

    Seems SpaceX is making their rocket more robust/safer than ever.

    http://www.theverge.com/2016/2/3/10906966/spacex-falcon-9-rocket-changes-reduce-refurbishment

    Reused Rockets will be safer than expendable ones

    Worth the wait!

  • Rob

    But that is what happened. The supplier was certified by NASA, who did exactly what you’re saying SpaceX should have done.

  • ReSpaceAge

    TIM R

    Critical path to MCT is raptor development I think.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Critical path to BFR is Raptor and core tooling for whatever diameter.
    Critical path for MCT is BFR, radiation protection scheme, fuel production on Mars.

  • Andrew Goetsch

    SpaceX has taken a page from Tesla and done what they needed to do to make SES happy. They’re putting the satellite in a more favorable orbit than agreed on, so it will be able to reach it’s final orbit and enter service earlier than originally planned. It’s not sure if they’re doing it by sacrificing re-usability or newer Falcon FT numbers have allowed them to up performance guarantees.

  • saw123

    Progress is being made. Overall, things are getting more reliable, and more efficient. SpaceX has made a big leap forward in terms of efficiency over previous space launch systems. As they learn and technology progresses, it will only get safer and better. Of course it is never a totally upward slope on progress. Occasionally there will be set backs. Last year’s launch failure was certainly a set back, but was also a learning experience.

    Commercial airlines today are incredibly safe, but there are still crashes. But the fatality rate is I think less than 1(person) in a million flights. It will be more decades before riding a rocket to space gets that safe, but it will be getting safer and cheaper. If you have knowledge of rocket history, then you know just getting something to orbit used to be a big problem and explosions were common. We’ve already come a good ways.