Three of SpaceX’s largest and most important customers have in some way expressed significant interest in flying missions aboard recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets. Even with respect to the three commercial reuses SpaceX has already accomplished this year, the combined interest of NASA, the US Air Force, and Iridium could well mark a major phase change in the space industry.
According to NASASpaceflight.com, NASA has been exploring reused Falcon 9 hardware for CRS-13, a cargo Dragon mission scheduled for no earlier than December 4th. If NASA finalizes approvals in time, CRS-13 could see SpaceX reuse both the Falcon 9 first stage and the Dragon spacecraft atop it, in many ways reminiscent of SpaceX’s ultimate goal of full reusability. Furthermore, for CRS-13, NASA is focused on launching aboard the same Falcon 9 that flew CRS-11 just four months ago, a pleasant synergy that would figuratively suggest the development of a fleet ownership-type attitude. NASA is by far SpaceX’s largest customer and has been an invaluable source of support and expertise for the company for nearly all of its 15 years of operations.
US Air Force
The week initially began with a Bloomberg interview of US Space Command head General Jay Ramond that can be best described as a resounding affirmation of the Air Force’s interest in reused SpaceX rockets. Never one for subtlety, Gen. Raymond was quoted saying that the USAF would be “absolutely foolish” and “dumb” to not consider flying on reused rockets. While reused hardware will need to be certified separately for Air Force missions, the Raymond suggested that the process of certifying the reusable Falcon 9 had already begun, although he was unable to provide a an estimate for when it might be completed. Ultimately, although the Air Force is laser-focused on reliability over all other traits, Raymond praised SpaceX for its role in introducing price-shrinking competition to the launch market and reiterated his “[complete] commitment to…reused rocket[s].”
Up next on the docket is Iridium, a satellite communications provider that contracted with SpaceX for the eight missions required to launch its next generation Iridium NEXT constellation. While CEO Matt Desch has openly expressed interest in reuse over the last year and a half, he remained skeptical and maintained that he was effectively waiting for a more amicable discount on reused vehicles before biting the bullet. SpaceX must have made an offer that couldn’t be refused, as Iridium Communications announced in a press release that the NEXT-4 and NEXT-5 missions will both fly atop reused Falcon 9 first stages, beginning with NEXT-4 on December 22nd.
Of crucial importance, Iridium also noted that the premiums paid to their launch insurers would not increase as a result of the adoption of reused hardware. While the change boosters means that the newly-completed Landing Zone at Vandenberg will have to wait until 2018 to host a Falcon 9 recovery, that is a small consolation to pay for yet another major customer warming up to SpaceX’s reusability program.
Finally, in an unexpected and encouraging turn of events, Israeli communications satellite operator Spacecom announced on Wednesday that they had contracted with SpaceX for the 2019 and 2020 launches of the Amos-17 and Amos-8 communications satellites.
In early-September 2016, a Falcon 9 preparing to conduct a static fire suffered a catastrophic failure that destroyed vehicle, Spacecom’s Amos-6 payload, and extensively damaged Launch Complex 40. With SpaceX effectively at fault for the loss, they were contractually obligated to either return Spacecom’s $50m deposit or provide a second launch at no additional cost. Spacecom sided with the latter and further tripled down on SpaceX with a second launch order in 2020 and the decision to fly Amos-17 on a reused Falcon 9.
While one could dismiss the choice to exploit free reflight as a move begrudgingly forced by financial pragmatism, Spacecom’s Amos-8 launch order and decision to fly on reused hardware is undeniable evidence that the two companies have preserved their relationship in spite of the Amos-6 trials and tribulations.
Whoa. Spacecom not only going back to #SpaceX F9 for free re-flight of AMOS-6, but it looks like it will be on a flight-proven F9 to boot!
— Chris G – NSF (@CwG_NSF) October 18, 2017
All said and done, the fact that all four of these groundbreaking announcements occurred over the course of a handful of days is incredible. If the trope could ever be said to be applicable, it is hard to deny that SpaceX is likely on aerospace’s Cloud 9 this week.