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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  • JamesG

    What are “Industry Officials”? Are they from some secrut government agency charged with making sure the media has something to bitch about SpaceX?

  • I keep hearing about this ‘launch overcapacity’ they keep talking about.

    I can’t quite see the problem here, surely these customers have a viable plan B, right?

  • windbourne

    As some of us have been saying, SpaceX needs to focus on their schedule and get this going.
    It is nice that they continue to improve their rockets, but, they really need to stop it, focus on their customers and get launches going.

  • Douglas Messier

    I’m not sure it’s that easy to switch boosters. For one, it would be more expensive. Two, it could cause even more delays. Three, they might lose their deposits. There was a case some years back where a satellite operator had to sue SpaceX for its deposit after switching to another booster due to delays.

  • This is more or less expected. SpaceX is still in the R&D and testing process for F9, and it seems that they want to keep it that way for years to come (see the USAF development contract for a F9/FH methalox upper stage). Their constant iteration process means that launch cadence becomes low, development problems eat their scheduling and the overall LV TRL does not get boosted, due to constant first time
    flight items in each launch.

    SES9 is not going to fly until the problem they found with the LV is sorted. Its an extremely important mission for both SES and SpaceX, so I expect the schedule to slip until the confidence level is high enough to commit. In my view, this is unfortunate, but a lot better than launch fever. Mission assurance has been heavily boosted as an objective after CRS-7.

    SpaceX is also NOT going to freeze their LV design, for noone. They will keep using their government and commercial customers as guinea pigs, forcing a constant R&D/iteration process to make their LV better and better. This is unfortunate for the customers, but inevitable. Especially since the competition is either backlogged (Arianespace), more risky (Proton), or too expensive (ULA). I don’t expect this to change any time soon, sorting out re-usability and reliability issues for F9 will take at
    least another two years or so (there is going to be a big iteration process from the results SpaceX finds from re-used cores).

  • Douglas Messier

    SpaceX is about to increase its risk considerably as it starts launching crews. That is cause for concern relating to reliability. SpaceX never flies the same booster twice, so it’s difficult for people evaluating these things to gain the sorts of insights needed to understand how these rockets operate and where potential traps lie that can bring down the rocket. Upgrades can produce unforeseen risks.

    The military likes the Atlas V because it has flown many times successfully and they have a lot of insight into how the rocket, it’s key components and its variants perform. The Atlas V does get upgrades, but they are generally not as major as those on the the Falcon 9. And the technology is well understood.

    Charlie Bolden was once asked about the risks involved of flying astronauts on a booster developed by a startup company. He said they would have a lot of experience with the Falcon 9 before putting astronauts on board. It now looks like NASA will be putting astronauts on board a constantly evolving booster without many flights in the same configuration.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Agreed, and personally, I am quite comfortable with the situation. I am comfortable that they are able to manage (the majority of) their customer relationship and I am comfortable that at some stage they will achieve some enough stability to handle a significant increase in launch cadence.

    Presumably, they don’t want to push their manufacturing capacity beyond the point that it will be long term sustainable. When reuse gets into full swing, there’s no point in being able to produce more than a given number of rockets. Furthermore, their longer term manufacturing future is going to be based on a CH4 architecture, which might require relocating their core manufacturing away from Hawthorne.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    I wonder though, how much insight can be had from computer/sensor data. How many flights does it really take to gain “insight” and assess risk?.

  • CC flights indeed carry more risk for SpaceX. CC flights are also about 2-3 years away or so (by my estimate). By the time we get to the first one, the LV will have flown more than 10 times in the current configuration. Moreover, the lowest TRL for CC will always be the Spaceship, not the rocket, but an ever-changing LV design is indeed not helping with confidence.

    It is also not inconceivable that NASA and SpaceX may go for a CC LV freeze, like we have seen with the Jason-3 history. In any case though, I don’t see SpaceX changing pace in development soon (there are a lot of lessons to apply with data from returned cores).

  • PK Sink

    If Elon can achieve reuse with this upgrade, I think we’ll be seeing less development and more concentration on cadence.

  • ReSpaceAge

    Which should make falcon much safer, perhaps safest to ever fly.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    On the one hand, it’s hard to argue, but on the other hand, surely SpaceX must know, at the very least, what appears to be the bleeding obvious. So they must either be incapable of meeting everyone else’s perception of what their schedule is, or that they are comfortable with letting this schedule, mythical or actual, slip. If they had never published a schedule, would they still be behind schedule?, and therefore not concentrating on their customers?. How privy are we to all the conversations between SpaceX representatives and their customers, and how much do we know about the feelings on both sides of those relationships?. Personally, I couldn’t care less about their customers. I want them to improve their rockets and spacecraft as quickly as possible – preferably yesterday.

  • JamesG

    OTOH- We have been doing this for a while (both SX and rocketry in general) and so the engineering is well understood. The failures SX has had have not been developmental problems, but QC problems with established parts (a strut and a Merlin that decided it didn’t want to fly that day). Given SX’s proven ability of pull off rolling development and production changes, I’m comfortable with their way of doing things (of course no one cares, lol), especially with all the man-rating and abort contingencies they have built into it.

    Until they start reflying boosters and spacecraft, each and every launch is on a “new vehicle” with its own probability of defects and failure. So flying a few copies of something doesn’t really get you as much confidence as having people and processes that can reliably build and fly one offs.

    Progress requires risk.

  • I am sure everyone is sitting on the edge of their seats waiting anxiously for a fabulous future where the higher flight rates and an availability of used boosters with tighter operational procedures will make booking an on time flight significantly easier than it is now.

    And maybe the gate agents will remain pleasant in the face of distress.

  • TimR

    My essay published by the Space Review last week (shameless plug 🙂 ) -SpaceX Odyssey – argues that Elon and ‘X must raise his cadence and an obvious first order is to complete the cycle of re-usability with the one and only intact used Core. Replace the funky number 9 engine and re-qualify the Core; what will be common for re-use. The essay received nearly 100 comments discounting the 10 or so comments by me 😉 and the same on Reddit. Those that were shaken to comment stated essentially that “Elon knows what he is doing”, “Elon can say whatever he wants”, “Elon will have plenty of cores to re-use soon, why use the first”, “I’m comfortable with Elon’s progress.” Well, moving up the arrival date of humans on Mars from 2027 to 2025 while sitting on his laurel (the returned Core) and slipping launch dates is altogether incompatible talk and actions. These SpaceX “events” just add to the argument – re-fly the damn core and complete the cycle of re-use. That will make it a real museum piece or something to hang from the Hawthorne rafters.

  • windbourne

    no customers means no company. Simple as that.
    Gov. is less than 1/3 of their launches, so they really need to make these customers happy.

  • TimR

    Hey, I’m not happy and I’m not even a customer. 🙂

  • windbourne

    yeah, but, that is what he has said for the last 3 years.

  • JamesG

    It depends on how much you need to CYA…

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Funnily enough, I read that article, and I didn’t agree with your state of desperation. Sure, I would like to see all this good stuff happen asap, as much as anyone. However, I, and you, are not included in the decision making at SpaceX and we don’t have the all the business, technical and long term planning data that Elon and his colleagues do.

    “an obvious first order is to complete the cycle of re-usability”
    The implication from this is that they have so little idea of what they are doing that this option never occurred to them. Is that what you really think?; that they are a bunch of numpties who have gotten this far by not knowing what they are doing. Of course they want to re-fly a first stage, and meet their customers expectations, and get more customers, and all that. I understand frustration and impatience, but to say that “they’re doing it wrong”, and that “with the data that we’ve got, and with none of the data that they’ve got, I think they should do something different” is a little questionable.

    “…freeze F9 design, fly often and meet your schedule goals…”
    What exactly are those schedule goals?, do you know?. On the one hand, you’re saying that despite any data and circumstance that they are aware of, they should just re-fly the stage immediately, or stand no chance of reaching Mars by 202?. On the other hand you’re saying data and circumstance and development plans be damned. Just cease R&D and launch the schedule that everybody who has no official knowledge of the actual schedule, is saying that they should meet.

  • TimR

    Well. Let’s file this one under: “They know what they’re doing” … don’t tug on his or their capes. My call for urgency is not without qualification. My work on Mars projects is insight and knowledge of the project life-cycle, software and hardware design for getting robotic vehicles to Mars. What SpaceX will first send to Mars is a robotic vehicle. But there’s will act also as an iron lung for about 7 to 12 humans making its complexity about twice as great. Yes, you can say they have thought of flying the first core but their decision, so far, not to, is arguably wrong. SpaceX as an organization is fallible on account of choices from one person or from a team. They are no exception and to just sit comfortably and drink their coolaid is a disservice to them – permitting them to live in a vacuum. 🙂

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “…to just sit comfortably and drink their coolaid is a disservice to them”
    So if I send Elon and email telling him to re-fly that core next week, or to just criticise, then the SpaceX vacuum bubble will burst. I don’t think so. I think they will continue to do what they think is best, based on the information, both technical and business, that they have available to them. My passive stance with regards to SpaceX decision making comes from accepting that the progress of SpaceX is being beyond my control and thust my own internal impatience is unavoidable. Playful speculation is one thing, as happens much hereabouts, but to say that they are wrong, justified by a woeful lack of genuine information, is at best, pointless.

  • TimR

    SpaceX is chocked full of bright people yet still fallible as a whole or just one. Its silly to imagine they do not listen to feedback. Certainly, they do not have time to read everything but their PR is not just shout outs with deaf ears. How much influence an essay such as mine has is unknown but not zero. The Space Industry is a pretty small and tight community. I’d still say that you are way too sensitive and protective of Musk & Company; insulting with “woeful lack of genuine information” is an indicator. The essay quotes Musk several times, makes use of the present circumstances and indisputable fact that 2027 (now 2025) is just around the corner. I never implied haphazard decisions but actually re-flying the first Core is a risk they can take and benefit from. Fail and I think you and I will honor their daring and respect seeing bits and pieces of this first Core alongside the first intact fully re-used one. There is definitely contrast between the Musk’s rhetoric and the progress of SpaceX and whether any feedback to them has impact, it will be fascinating to see how it plays out. “Failure is not an option” but they can fail.

  • Hug Doug

    I half agree with you. I think the recovered core should be re-flown, but at the test site in New Mexico, they don’t need to risk a customer’s payload just yet. There, they can launch it repeatedly until it fails. Displaying it as pieces would be a high honor, indeed.

  • ReSpaceAge

    At the end of this article, it is stated that ULA losing its 800 million a year could lead to schedule delays? Maybe DoD needs to give the 800 million to SpaceX instead of ULA so they can hire more staff and equipment to have a stellar launch cadence like ULA does/did?

    http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/air-space/space/2016/01/27/us-air-force-may-terminate-unique-ula-launch-contract/79424966/

  • ReSpaceAge

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_management_triangle

    Find it interesting how ULA folks brag about quality and cadence, when they have been buried in cash.

  • TimR

    I agree that it needn’t involve a paying customer and who cares where its re-flown; just not in my backyard – scorch marks, rough to get out. Yet, Google has dumped $Billions into SpaceX. They have Skybox. Why can’t they hand Elon a payload they can afford to lose? No payload is even necessary but in this day & age of cubesats and low cost electronics, there is little reason why a low-cost payload could not be flown. Frankly, I think SpaceX should have been bright enough to foresee this moment and should have had something prepared. Flying fully complete 2nd stages would be costly but they should have conceived of a low cost upper stage for such testing. Call the stupid cheap upper stage to LEO (SCUSL) and send a bunch of crazy cubesats on their way.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    It seems to be Space X needs to spawn another work force. Those who operate the systems and those who modify existing designs and develop new ones. We keep talking about how the machine changes are effecting cadence, but what about the people who really make it happen? The people working directly with the hardware. How much of these gaps in launch cadence are due to the inability for the humans to keep up?

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “…way too sensitive and protective of Musk & Company”
    No, you’re missing the point. These are people I don’t know, doing stuff without regard to me. I am simply hopeful that they will succeed and hopeful that their motives are as philanthropic as stated.

    “insulting with “woeful lack of genuine information””
    This was not meant as an insult, but as a statement of fact. Do you have access to all the testing data and launch and landing data?. Unless you are high up in SpaceX’s management and technical team, then you are quite literally lacking official information (perhaps with the exception of some people at nasa and may be the air force).

    I would love them to to re-fly that first stage, asap, with or without a second stage. We all would and that is not really in question. The suggestion is though, that if that particular first landed first stage is not reflown without delay then Mars by 202something is impossible. Why is a stage recovered in February or March and re-flown in the summer not good enough?. What with nasa and commercial launches and Crew Dragon, and (the delayed again) FH, 2016 is to be a busy year, perhaps resources are tight. You are further implying that they could re-fly that stage and that they are making some serious tactical error in not doing so. Yet neither F9 nor FH are going to get them to Mars. We can already be fairly confident that first stages can be landed and reused multiple times. What tweaks are needed to make this straightforward and reliable is yet to be discovered. But surely we can also be confident that the lessons learned from Falcon will then be applied to BFR.
    At this point with the first successful landing done, and regular reusability to follow over the next few years, then with regard to Mars, a bigger worry might be the progress of Raptor.

  • redneck

    If it were my decision, that booster would never fly again after I had the team take it down to its’ component parts for inspection. Demanding a stunt flight doesn’t seem to be in conformance with common sense.

  • JamesG

    They do have that. From what I have ready, they all work in the same building (pretty much) but you have the development folks and the production folks. They interact and talk, but its not as if the dev guys keep running out on to the shop floor yellng, “Stop! Put that over there and try sticking that in there.” Their development process is much more like a hybrid between production and software development. An order for a specific vehicle for a specific flight is “locked” (usually) but the next one might be something different. But the change will be evaluated and documented before it gets to the factory floor.

    What SX needs is a bigger factory and more people to keep output up with demand. The hard part is how do you keep from watering down the special sauce they have right now…

  • PK Sink

    Yeah, his brother said in an interview that Elon gets bored when things are going too smoothly. But I’m thinking that this may be the last iteration of F9 cause he’s got the reuse rockets, Heavy and the BFR developments to keep him happy.

  • Kapitalist

    I don’t think that SpaceX considers themselves as being in a stage of RnD. I think they will always research and develop, never stop and simply repeat what they’ve done before. FH would just be a gradual step on that road. Unless scrapped because they are instead focusing on the much larger next generation rocket with methane engines.

  • Kapitalist

    But that is mitigated when each launcher is landed and inspected. The changes to every new launch won’t be done blindly, they will be improvements based on the material facts of how the previous launch performed. Reusability is inherently much safer than expendability. Car makers recall new models when fatal design failures have been discovered lethally on the roads. Ten year old reused car models have their proven record of safety.

  • Douglas Messier

    The risk has already been increasing on commercial crew. ASAP is very concerned about how it keeps creeping up as a result of under funding and other factors:

    http://www.parabolicarc.com/2016/01/14/nasa-asap-concerned-commercial-crew-safety/

    Progress requires risk is a good catch phrase, but it’s a lot more complicated than that. So was the accident last June. Wasn’t simply poor QC on a single part.

  • Douglas Messier

    Yes, it’s a conspiracy. It’s all a giant conspiracy against poor SpaceX. Good grief. Grow up.

  • TimR

    It would not be a stunt flight. They simply have not yet proven re-use of a commercial vehicle. Sure it depends on how far they are going with inspection. Down to nuts and bolts and rebuilding to flight readiness would be costly. A lot of inspection can go on without “destroying” the Core. Matter of fact every used core will have to go through a thorough inspection.

  • TimR

    Flying the first core again represents the cadence needed to get to Mars by 2025 or 2027. Small delays now will be amplified. No – Falcon 9 & H are absolutely necessary for getting to Mars. They will produce the revenue needed to make ‘X a profitable company. Profits will be re-invested into development of the next gen and ‘X’s own stepping stones to Mars. If Musk wastes this one and accumulates used cores, it means years before re-use proves it use, reduces costs, increases margins and attracts more paying customers. Once again SpaceX is intended to take humans to Mars. I completely appreciate his disruptive technology in the mean time but getting to Mars by 2027(25) means not holding back anything. Look at the actions taken to get humans from Shepard to Armstrong in 8 years.

  • mzungu

    I guess we are back to the Pre-Columbia, and Pre-Challenger mentality….but only this time, the risk/blame is out-sourced.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Thanks for that insight. The way military forces keep that ‘special sauce’ is to educate and invest in training of the leadership, and grant them wide operating independence, down thru the ranks. If the ‘special sauce’ runs from the top down at Space X, they’ll have problems scaling. But I see a lot of very young enthusiastic people on that production floor and I’ll bet Space X can grow and become independent from it’s leadership. If not, then with all that youthful viggor I think we’ll see Space X become the Fairchild Electronics of aerospace and winds up spawning America’s future space version of Intel, AMD and the like. Musk has to scale, if he can’t grant independence to his underlings, then they’ll bolt. The leader is never really the ‘special sauce’ it’s the people around that leadership that are the real sauce.

  • Lech

    “28-engine Falcon Heavy” 3 x 9 = 27

  • Snofru Chufu

    Plus one engine in upper stage.

  • Emmet Ford

    As opposed to SLS and Orion? At least some variant of the Falcon 9 has flown many times. Computer simulations are not quite the same.

  • Lech

    So Falcon 9 should be called Falcon 10 😉

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “If Musk wastes this one and accumulates used cores, it means years before re-use proves it use…”
    I dare say that in reality we probably agree on a great many things, but the main tenet of your argument remains decidedly unproven and irrational.

  • redneck

    A costly inspection of this first successful recovery could save considerable cash down the road. It should take enough time and attention that the next recovered booster could be reflown first as it wouldn’t have to be rebuilt after a detailed inspection. Knee jerk decisions are not good long term plans.

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Great beat up guys. We’re barely into the year and it seems like SpaceX is never going to fly again this year. Come on. They flew 6 last year when down for 6 months. Orbital was down for 12 months and when they flew again it was on someone else’s vehicle.
    They’re not idiots you know and they have created one hell of a record in their 11 years or so.
    So, for the record, SES want to fly on the first reused stage. And if customers are so unhappy, who are they? NSF L2 has more insight than most including a number of SpaceX employees and there’s no word of any serious issues or customers freaking out. If they are and there are knowledgable posters here, then perhaps you’d be kind enough to identify them?
    Just asking.
    Cheers

  • TomDPerkins

    “They simply have not yet proven re-use of a commercial vehicle.”

    So? Why do they have to do this with that booster?

    It they recover the next booster, and re-launch it by June will that suit you? If not why not? I’m with redneck, that booster should be taken apart and inspected closely, re-assembled and re-tested fired.

    But it doesn’t have to be that one that is reflown with cargo.

  • Steve Ksiazek

    I think that is the point of the article. SpaceX will never fly the same configuration 10 times in a row. How many F9 V1.1 launches were there ? Did they finally make 10 before they retired that launcher ? Of course, I think this is a bit of a problem when you start thinking about reuse. There may be a mix / match of different cores, and the GSE and related procedures have to change to support each one.

  • patb2009

    QC problems are much harder to lock down then design problems. A design problem may be “Strut too weak for actual loads”.. Fix is add material, or change material or improve design… QC problems are “2% of these struts don’t meet spec” means you have to go through and figure out how to verify they meet spec and then do that to all of them