It Begins

SpaceX has signed on their first commercial customer for Falcon Heavy:

Washington, DC / Hawthorne, CA May 29, 2012 – Today, Intelsat, the world’s leading provider of satellite services, and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), the world’s fastest growing space launch company, announced the first commercial contract for the Falcon Heavy rocket.

“SpaceX is very proud to have the confidence of Intelsat, a leader in the satellite communication services industry,” said Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer. “The Falcon Heavy has more than twice the power of the next largest rocket in the world. With this new vehicle, SpaceX launch systems now cover the entire spectrum of the launch needs for commercial, civil and national security customers.”

“Timely access to space is an essential element of our commercial supply chain,” said Thierry Guillemin, Intelsat CTO. “As a global leader in the satellite sector, our support of successful new entrants to the commercial launch industry reduces risk in our business model. Intelsat has exacting technical standards and requirements for proven flight heritage for our satellite launches. We will work closely with SpaceX as the Falcon Heavy completes rigorous flight tests prior to our future launch requirements.”

This is the first commercial contract for SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch vehicle. Under the agreement, an Intelsat satellite will be launched into geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO).

I’m guessing that last week’s successful Falcon 9 flight sealed the deal.

63 thoughts on “It Begins”

  1. This brings on so many questions. A few:

    1) Will this be a single satellite launch or part of a dual?

    2) Will they fly it out of Canaveral or dog-leg it out of Vandenberg?

    3) Does ULA know how much trouble they’re in?


    1. I would assume this would be out of Vandenberg – I don’t think SpaceX has an official timeline for modifying the CCAFS pad for FH operations.

    2. I’m sure they plan to launch out of the Cape at some point, but not sure what the schedule is for either that or the Intelsay launch(es). As to number 3, based on what Andy Aldrin said in DC last week after the launch, I’d say the answer is “yes.”

      1. When I Google his name, the latest news report retrieved is from last summer. What did he say?

    3. 1 & 2. If it isn’t a dual launch, then perhaps that supports a dog-leg trajectory out of Vandenberg. Going to GTO out of Vandy seems horribly inefficient but the FH has so much payload capacity that it might be able to do it. The amazing thing is that SpaceX is quoting a price of $128 million to launch more than 6.8 MT to GTO. That’s a lot cheaper than just about any other booster and for that, you get the Heavy!

      The SpaceX website mentions launching the Falcon Heavy out of the Cape but I don’t know which launch pad they’d use. The recent discussion of building a new commercial launch facility near Brownsville, TX would seem a better fit. You could build a pad there that could handle the F9 and FH. The site is a couple degrees lower latitude which helps payloads going to GTO and it looks like the nominal trajectory would split the gap between southern Florida and Cuba. The Gulf coast of Florida is less than 1000 miles from Brownsville and it would seem easier to recover the stages there than returning to Texas (or Florida for a Cape launch).

      3. I’m sure they’re counting on their political connections to keep their military and NSA monopoly as long as possible. SpaceX still needs to build a long term track record of success before they’ll get contracts to launch high priority (often $1+ billion) military and NRO payloads.

      1. I’m not really sure that they even think they have a monopoly with NASA where COTS is concerned, given that it is only a few months until Orbital Sciences launches their first COTS test flight from Wallops Island.

      2. Let ULA have the black sats. I haven’t researched it, so I could be stupidly wrong, but I’m guessing the number of potential commercial payloads is many times that of the black payloads.

        1. NRO launched about 7 satellites last year and has launched 2 or 3 so far this year with 3 more scheduled (one a DIV-Heavy). Besides those “black” satellites, the Air Force has launched the first of new constellations for EHF (AEHF), UHF (MUOS) and launch detection (SBIRS) satellites in the last 18 months with more scheduled. They also launch a small number of replacement GPS satellites every year with GPS III under development. They’ve launched 3 WGS satellites so far (DSCS-III) replacements with 6 more set in the years to come. There are also things like the X-37 that get launched from time to time. All of them are launched on ULA rockets and all are very expensive. The ULA launches seem to run over $300 million each and many of those satellites are over a billion dollars each.

          1. Well yeah, that sounds like a lot of satellites. And I know Elon is very concerned about the ULA “monopoly” so I stand corrected.

      3. The Brownsville site is a dead end. Its less then 3 miles from the Mexican border and there are numerous homes nearly, not to mention it requires overflight of a major wildlife refuge. The only location that makes any sense is just south of Port Mansfield to the north. But the cost and time for securing the oil rigs offshore will make scheduling difficult for either site.

        1. I don’t think overflying a wildlife refuge is an issue, or at least it’s not when they launch from Cape Canaveral National Wildlife Refuge, or whatever it’s called. Also, it looks like there are maybe two rigs off the Texas coast in that area, otherwise it’s clear unless they launch towards New Orleans. map of rig locations here.

          And the proximity to Mexico would provide good long term access to aliens who would be useful for deep space missions.

          1. George,

            Actually the Cape is south of the refuge there and no overflights occur. Yes, the further south you go the fewer rigs, but its a constantly changing dynamic in the Gulf.

            But the key is when you draw that circle is to look to the north and see what is includes. It might work for a small sounding rocket, but I expect after they spend the money they will find it too expensive for a large vehicle like the Falcon 9H.

            And for the record, when I was working on spaceports in Texas I actually drove by the site they are now talking about, as well as many others, so I also have some on ground knowledge. And I was also very involved with the studies for the Southwest Regional Spaceport (now Spaceport America) in New Mexico where WSMR used its extensive data base to determine the risk from launch and recover failures (which is why I was not surprised at the size of the debris trail from Columbia, it actually followed closely the predicted ones predicted by WSMR for VentureStar…). If SpaceX is serious about south Texas they will look further north towards Port Mansfield.

      4. Going to GTO out of Vandy seems horribly inefficient but the FH has so much payload capacity that it might be able to do it.

        Not really, going by the numbers on the SpaceX website. Its payload to LEO is huge, and far more than is necessary. To GTO however, Ariane 5 still has a larger payload. That doesn’t mean it is superior, since Ariane is too large for single GTO payloads (and getting too small for double payloads, which hurts its commercial viability). FH might be just right for single payloads to GTO.

        For manned applications single-launch to L1/L2 might be attractive, but dual launch might be better.

        I don’t really understand why GTO performance is so much less impressive compared to its rivals than to LEO. All kerolox must have something to do with it, as well as having a less favourable launch site. Cross-feed apparently doesn’t overturn that.

        1. Hmm, the press release says 12mT to GTO, which would make it larger than Ariane 5 ECA and about the same as a future ECB. I wonder if the 12mT includes the plane change.

    4. I found a link to the announcement that answers question #2:

      The first launch pad for the Heavy is under construction at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, the preferred site for polar-orbit launches. The company also hopes to launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Florida, from which the Falcon 9 currently flies.

      Intelsat notes that the timing and launch site are still under discussion but that the launch will not take place from Vandenberg AFB, which will be the site of the first Falcon 9 Heavy launch in mid-2013. This suggests that the flight will likely take place at either SpaceX’s facilities at KSC or a new launch site in Brownsville, Texas, after 2013 because there are no other Falcon 9 Heavy pads that are near completion.

  2. 1) No clue.

    2)It’s more than a year away, it could be flying out of the Spacex commercial facility in Tx 😉

    3)ULA is toast….

    1. More importantly, Arianespace is toast. That could lead to some serious flight rates for Falcon.

      1. No doubt SpaceX will cut into Arianespace’s commercial launches but I suspect the ESA will prop them up with heavy subsidizies. It’s like the Japanese with their H2 booster. It makes no economic sense for them to fly H2s (very expensive) but the Japanese maintain it for national prestige reasons.

        1. They might settle for an all LOX/LH2 Ariane 6 and government payloads only. That would make them independent of the commercial market.

  3. Exactly, Rand. The biggest immediate effect of the Dragon mission to ISS is confidence-building for the F9/FH. All those warnings about the 3rd flight of a new booster being the killer…

  4. Intelsat has only geosynchronous satellites. How in the world does one “dog-leg” into an equatorial orbit from VAFB?

    It’s conceivable that one could do a polar shot into geo by going around the moon. No one would do it deliberately, though..

    1. They might if the price was right, but I agree that seems unlikely.

      Several weeks ago, Boeing announced their 702 SP satellite bus. It’s the first commercial bus that has no hypergolic propellants on board to make the transition from GTO to GEO. Instead, they’ll use ion thrusters and about 6 months to transition the orbits. The mass savings are huge, so much so that you can launch two 702 SP satellites on a Falcon 9. The bus was designed with the Falcon 9 in mind and 4 SP satellites have already been sold. While the months-long transition time represents lost revenue, the low, low launch costs make up for it.

      1. “Instead, they’ll use ion thrusters and about 6 months to transition the orbits.”

        Maybe an advantage of ion thrusters other more station keeping is it could broaden the launch window.
        It also seem refueling Xenon could easier non cryogenic and small mass.
        If going from a polar inclination, one has brief window to get to the moon.
        If significant portion delta-v is from ion, it seems one have more launch window.
        It seems to me the best place to launch is from the equator.
        But if unwilling to do that and still want to go GEO, using ion engines and trajectories could use the Moon seems like good second choice.

    2. “Intelsat has only geosynchronous satellites. How in the world does one “dog-leg” into an equatorial orbit from VAFB?”

      I’m aware of the orbital mechanics. I was using “dog-leg” VERY genericly to include plane changes by the upper stage. 🙂

      I only asked because I’ve seen no definite plans to launch Falcon Heavy anywhere other than Vandenberg. I was wondering if I missed an announcement somewhere.

      1. The SpaceX website mentions Falcon Heavy launch performance from the Cape but nothing so far on their launch schedule. They use the SLC-40 pad at the Cape from Falcon 9. It used to be a Titan IV pad so perhaps it wouldn’t be too difficult for it to handle Falcon Heavy, assuming that wouldn’t tie up the pad too much for commercial launches.

        As an aside, did SpaceX even attempt to recover the F9 first stage on this flight? Given all that was going on, I imagine recovering the stage was a low priority but I don’t know if they even tried or what may’ve happened. The launch video showed the second stage firing from the vantage of the first stage. Perhaps they were content on this flight to gather more data in hopes of recovery on a future flight. Or perhaps they’ve temporarily abandoned the existing parachute recovery scheme until they’re ready to proceed with the Grasshopper experiments.

    3. I looked again at the inclinations available from VAFB, and was surprised to find that the minimum was 51 degrees. That’s not too far from 46 degrees, which is Baikanour’s minimum. And Proton launches to geo from there, using the three-impulse elliptical transfer with plane change at apogee discussed elsewhere in this thread. So it isn’t inconceivable that they’re looking at a west-coast launch.

      That means the ISS is also accessible from VAFB. Who’d’a thunk it?

      1. From memory, the actual minimum inclination from Tyuratam (AKA Balanour) is 51.6 degrees because of the need to avoid dropping rocket pieces in China. Some people have no sense of humor. That’s why all of the Salyut, Mir and ISS launches went into a 51.6 degree inclination orbit.

  5. Highly elliptical transfer orbit (apogee well beyond GEO), plane change and raise perigee at apogee, then lower the apogee? That’s stretching the definition of GTO quite a lot.

    1. It’s being done now. Having an upper stage take out some of your inclination (and/or taking advantage of the lower velocity at a higher altitude and changing inclination there) can save a lot of fuel on board the satellite.

      1. Yes, the Russians get to GEO in a similar way. But is this really a GTO? I normally think of GTO as a simple Hohmann transfer ellipse, not something involving several burns, but I’m not in the biz.

        The plane change and lowering of the apogee could be accomplished by an ion drive.

      1. Do you have a source for that? Everything I’ve read indicates they have upgraded the Kwajalein launch site to support Falcon 9 launches and might upgrade it further to support the Falcon Heavy.

        1. Robin – Source? Launching even the F9 out of Kwajalein has never been on the radar for them. There just isn’t space enough.

          1. I checked again and it looks like there’s only tentative plans to upgrade Kwajalein. Nevertheless, I haven’t seen anything indicated that they’ve completely abandoned Kwaj.

    1. The expense of transporting the big rockets to an island in the middle of the Pacific sounds prohibitive.

      1. If I was going to operate in the Pacific I’d probably move tank production and stage assembly facilities to Australia and launch somewhere along the coast of Queensland, from Brisbane (27 degrees south) to Cape York (10 degrees south). One possible side benefit is that there are thousands of South Pacific islands down range where a re-usable stage could be landed without having to expend the fuel necessary for a full return to the original launch pad. Then it could be returned by ship or partially refueled and flown back.

        1. George,

          The problem is that Australia is under the Moon Treaty, which would kill any long term plans for Mars or the Moon.

          The eastern coast of Hawaii is a much better location.

        2. Hrm… Under the treaty, would a US based company launching from Australia be considered a US flight or an Australian flight? I’m thinking it would still be US because the Russians actually launch out of Kazakhstan, (I read today that three upcoming launches have just been suspended as the two countries argue over their agreement regarding impact zones).

          Hawaii would work, but I’m not sure whether you’d have to ship over most of raw materials and fuel from the mainland, whereas Australia has a huge domestic mineral and fossil fuel industry. Of course the current Australian PM would likely slap the rocket with a massive carbon tax.

      2. “The expense of transporting the big rockets to an island in the middle of the Pacific sounds prohibitive.”

        Big rockets are 90% rocket fuel. Does transporting rocket fuel to island in middle of pacific seem expensive?

        It seems it’s more expensive to having to have people in the middle of Pacific on a island as more costly.
        And such things as the need of some part, the time shipping is a problem. So logistics of people and unexpected things one might need could be more challenging that moving and storage of 1000 tons of rocket fuel.
        And the bulkiness of a rocket is easier in regards to ocean transport as compared using roads or rail.

        It seems it should somewhat similar to operating on the Moon. One should use human crew, but keep them to minimum, and try to do teleoperations when ever possible. Keep managers and personnel not actually needed be on the island, not on the island. But you need the guys who going to find the stuck valve on the island.

  6. I recall somewhere Elon said Kwajalein lacked LOX infrastructure to support F9. I can’t recall any sources mentioning the cost of preparing launch infrastructure at Vandenburg or the Cape. But I would think that a better business case could be made to launch from Brownsville TX assuming they get the land and permits fast tracked by State and local municipalities. Spacex’s plans seem gated by reliance on government launch facilities, so breaking from that is an enabler to his other goals.

  7. I’m guessing that last week’s successful Falcon 9 flight sealed the deal.

    No doubt that was a factor. Note however that the deal is still conditional on having several successful test FH flights first.

    1. As well it should. I have no info on what the FH test program might consist of, but it seems SpaceX has considerable room to dance freestyle on this issue as the FH has no NASA involvement – maybe not even launching from the Cape – to constrain its choices. Under the circumstances, SpaceX should probably design their test program to lean in whatever direction is indicated by the requirements of their commercial users. Given that Intelsat has now committed ink to paper, I could foresee SpaceX inexpensively putting together a boiler plate replica of a geosynch comms bird that masses the same as a real one, put it into an actual geosynch orbit, then quickly deorbit the thing just as a proof of concept demonstration. If I was Intelsat that would favorably impress me.

      1. I’d pack such a bird with lots of college or industry science projects and generate a lot of good will. 🙂

        1. I’d love to see a recycled CRS Dragon launched to L1/L2, on a quasi-ballistic trajectory if necessary, before EFT-1, beating NASA to the punch – again.

      2. I suspect they’d be able to find some commercial payload to launch on the inaugural Falcon Heavy flights. If they couldn’t I hope they’d go for something outlandish. Like contributing a module to ISS or maybe an unmanned Dragon circumlunar flight and recovery. Or… maybe a robotic Mars mission?

        1. While going to the moon from Vandenberg is rare, it has happened. The Clementine lunar satellite was launched on a Titan II from Vandenberg in 1994. That was the first satellite to go into a lunar polar orbit and was the first to return evidence of hydrogen (water) on the moon.

          Falcon Heavy could very well launch a Dragon around the moon. It’s supposed to be able to put 12 MT into GTO. A lightly loaded Dragon would be enough and you’d have the added benefit of proving the PICA-X heat shield can withstand reentry from deep space.

  8. maybe an unmanned Dragon circumlunar flight and recovery

    I’ve also had that thought. It sounds like it might be doable, and would certainly get the attention of the general public. It might even quiet down all the people who lament the “end of the space program”.

    1. Huh. I thought I clicked the “reply” button in Robin’s comment. Good thing I included the quote, or else my comment wouldn’t have made any sense.

      1. Sure would. But it would need the Super Draco-based launch escape/powered descent system to be ready in time for the first – or at least an early – FH test flight. Take the window covers off of the current cargo Dragon, put some big-ass cameras in there pointing out, launch a circum-Mars fly-by and return mission with a now-standard parachute recovery in the ocean – that they could likely do as early as the first FH test flight with existing major systems hardware. It would also give that PICA-X heat shield a real workout. There would be a non-trivial amount of mission-specific software to have ready first, of course, so it isn’t like there would be no additions to the critical path. But much of it this would be needed eventually to support Elon’s martian ambitions anyway. For all I know, some small group at SpaceX may have been working on Mars-targeted mission software for years already.

        1. Do both. Launch the mars mission first. Then land another on the moon before the first even gets to mars. Oh, and fill the mars with hundreds of little camera rovers that kids get to operate on the web. Little dune buggies with tin action figures in the drivers seat.

          1. fill the mars? I meant fill the moon Dragon. The SuperDracos are ready, they just need to integrate them along with the flight software (which may already be ready.)

      2. Baby steps. Circumlunar flight first.

        The problem with a Mars flight is that there would be a launch, several months of nothing much happening, a Mars flyby, several more months of nothing, then a splashdown. Think “attention span”.

        A circumlunar flight would last about six days and would be pretty hard to forget about. I think it would be more impressive for the general public.

        1. I agree. Even a cislunar flight would require some modifications to the Dragon guidance system which depends heavily on GPS data. I don’t think GPS would be very useful past GEO so they’d need an IUS or perhaps an update to their existing system. They’d also need to update their TT&C antenna for compatability with the Deep Space Network or other ground antennas. Currently, a lot of their TT&C probably goes through TDRSS and that also isn’t likely to work past GEO.

        2. Baby steps?

          From the guy that wanted to combine 2 and 3 after 1 went well (and actually delayed everything by doing so… somebody should have warned Elon about how govt. works. But he’s learning.)

          That’s why I said launch the mars mission first because you can’t get around the months of waiting. I don’t know if around the moon get’s the job done either. It’s been done. Been there. Done that. They could say the same thing about a landing, but the thing is a lot of people still don’t believe it’s a lander. They need to test it on the moon anyway before going to mars (not entirely true, but close enough.)

        3. And a Falcon Heavy/Dragon circumlunar flight would be entirely private. NASA wouldn’t be involved at all. Think about that.

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