SpaceX’s roadmap for innovating the global launch market

by Marshall Murphy

SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell recently outlined how SpaceX’s justifications for suing the United States Air Force (USAF) represent and advance SpaceX’s broader ambitions. Ms. Shotwell’s remarks, which were at a presentation at the Atlantic Council international affairs think tank in Washington, D.C., also outlined SpaceX’s current progress in securing and innovating in the global commercial launch market.

Suing for Space:

SpaceX sued the United States Air Force (USAF) in April, claiming that the USAF acted unfairly when in late 2013 it entered a sole-source contract to purchase 36 rocket cores from United Launch Alliance (ULA), SpaceX’s primary competitor in the U.S. launcher market. 

The contract’s “sole-source” nature stems from ULA being the only provider of launchers that the USAF certifies as being reliable enough to launch defense payloads.

Z3SpaceX is working to certify their Falcon 9 rocket for USAF launches.

Ms. Shotwell said the process consists of teams from both SpaceX and the USAF exchanging “mountains” of data and paperwork to certify that Falcon 9 meets U.S. Department of Defense payload launch requirements. SpaceX aims to complete Falcon 9’s certification by the end of 2014.

SpaceX claims that they will be certified soon enough to compete for launches covered in the block buy. Therefore, they argue, the 2013 deal prematurely and unfairly awarded launches that will occur well past the point of ULA being the sole source for USAF-certified launchers.

According to Ms. Shotwell, their launch vehicle – the Falcon 9 v1.1 – represents SpaceX’s mentality of upgrading systems in order to improve reliability.

“We want to make sure we’re flying the most reliable system we possibly can.”

The International Aspect

Ms. Shotwell said that SpaceX seeks to confront the United States’ reliance on Russian-enabled space access, especially in light of tensions between the U.S. and Russia over the future of Ukraine. 

Z5Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft is currently the only mode of US astronaut transportation to the International Space Station (ISS). Ms. Shotwell said SpaceX hopes its recently unveiled Dragon V2 spacecraft will curb NASA’s reliance on Soyuz for transport to ISS.

SpaceX, as well as Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corporation, is also attempting to return U.S. crew launch independence. However, the three companies are in competition to avoid being down-selected at some point in the future, possibly with only one company emerging with a contract to provide NASA crew transportation.

Meanwhile, Russian company NPO Energomash provides the RD-180 engine that powers the ULA Atlas V rocket, a frequent flyer of U.S. defense payloads. Both Boeing’s CST-100 and SNC’s Dream Chaser are set to ride atop of the Atlas V.

Z87On April 30, a U.S. Court of Federal Appeals injunction temporarily barred ULA from purchasing RD-180s. The injunction, which was lifted on May 8, was prompted by a complaint by SpaceX alleging that the purchase of RD-180s violates U.S. sanctions on Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russia’s defense and space industries.

The U.S. use of the RD-180-powered Atlas V for defense launches is “questionable” according to Ms. Shotwell.

SpaceX’s current emphasis on curbing U.S. use of Russia for space access comes amidst a general climate of uncertainty in U.S.-Russian space cooperation. Rogozin announced on May 13 that Russia will reconsider ISS participation beyond 2020, and that Russia will block the sale of any RD-180 engines purposed for U.S. military launches.

Launching Commercially:

Ms. Shotwell said that SpaceX is returning the commercial satellite launch industry to the U.S. In 2011 and 2012, SpaceX captured 100 percent of the market for Falcon 9-class launches and 30 percent of the worldwide launch market, adding that SpaceX seek to eventually capture 50 percent or more of the worldwide launch market.

Ms. Shotwell added SpaceX currently has 42 commercial launches manifested for a combined total of $4.2 billion in revenue. Each launch will cost around $100 million. Ms. Shotwell noted that SpaceX will ramp up its launch rate to two per month.

“We did dominate in commercial launch – the U.S. did- and we’ve lost it. So, this is really important for American jobs.”

An agreement to establish a SpaceX launch site in Brownsville, Texas is currently pending environmental impact analyses. Ms. Shotwell said that SpaceX will need “lots of launch sites.”


Ms. Shotwell also noted SpaceX’s success hinges on the ability to operate and produce while always innovating.

“SpaceX will never be a company that is just operation and production focused. We will always have a team of R&D engineers and technicians to ensure that we are constantly innovating.”

Z76One element of SpaceX’s innovation strategy is the development of reusable Falcon 9 rockets. Currently undergoing testing, SpaceX’s reusable technology will allow Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon spacecraft to fly repeatedly.

In a test as part of the April 18 launch of SpaceX’s Commercial Resupply Services-3 (CRS-3) mission to the ISS, a Falcon 9 first stage executed a soft splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. 

Incremental tests of the first Falcon 9 Reusable Development Vehicle (F9R Dev1) at SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas facility have flown as high as 1 km and consistently concluded with the successful landing of the vehicle.

According to Ms. Shotwell, F9R Dev1 tests eventually will be carried out in New Mexico due to an “altitude limitation” at the McGregor facility.

The Falcon Heavy, which Ms. Shotwell said will initially fly in the first half of 2015, will consist of three Falcon 9 first stages strapped together and topped with an upper stage and payload.

Set to be launched from Kennedy Space Center’s pad 39A as well as from Vandenberg Air Force Base, the Falcon Heavy will fly more payload to orbit than any rocket since the Saturn V, Ms. Shotwell noted – adding the first Falcon Heavy’s stages and engines are under construction at SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California headquarters.

While all SpaceX rockets flown thus far have been powered by SpaceX’s liquid oxygen (LOX) and Rocket Propellant-1 (RP-1)-fueled Merlin engines, the company is developing the Raptor engine, a methane and liquid oxygen-fueled engine designed to provide highly efficient thrust for SpaceX’s eventual family of super-heavy lift vehicles

During a question and answer session following her presentation, Ms. Shotwell said that some components of the Raptor may be of interest in the development of a replacement or successor to the RD-180.

An independent review panel commissioned by officials from across the U.S. government recently recommended the development of a new hydrocarbon-fueled engine in response to the uncertainty of the U.S.’ supply of RD-180s.

(Images via SpaceX, Sehrish Irum and NPO Energomash).

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