| Tech |
SpaceX Seeks Ambitious Launch Tempo Surpassing Current Rivals
Elon Musk’s company targets about two launches per month, but goal falls short of even more aggressive tempo projected earlier
The SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage rocket lands after carrying the U.S. Air Force X-37B spaceplane into orbit at the Cape Canaveral Spaceport on Sept. 7. Photo: Spacex/Zuma Press
Updated Oct. 5, 2017 1:58 p.m. ET
Elon Musk’s SpaceX aims for one rocket launch roughly every two weeks on average through the end of 2018, exceeding the schedule of any other space company or government around the globe.
The heady tempo underscores Mr. Musk’s strategy of relying on reusability and other efficiencies to dominate the space-transportation market. For years, leaders of Space Exploration Technologies Corp., as the company is formally called, have held out semimonthly launches as a cherished goal.
But the latest numbers, unveiled at a space symposium last week in Australia, suggest Mr. Musk has put aside for now more ambitious goals for launching swarms of SpaceX satellites and ramping up operation of a heavy-lift rocket that has encountered delays.
According to Mr. Musk’s latest projections, SpaceX by the end of December aims to blast off seven more rockets on top of the 13 already successfully launched this year, followed by 30 more next year. “If SpaceX does do something like” that in 2018, Mr. Musk told the conference in Adelaide, it will account for “approximately half of all orbital launches that occur on Earth.”
SpaceX began 15 years ago with a handful of employees located in a warehouse district near a Southern California strip mall. Now with roughly 5,000 employees, it is hailed as a space pioneer that has transformed the launch business and landed approximately $10 billion in contracts in the process.
Despite SpaceX’s accelerating launches, the latest projections fall short of targets appearing in internal documents prepared about two years ago. The documents, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, cited 27 launches for this year and 44 for 2018.
The documents projected that SpaceX would be launching once a week by 2019.
Much of the paring of launch goals appears to stem from significant delays getting SpaceX’s planned internet-via-satellite business and Falcon Heavy booster off the ground.
A SpaceX spokesman didn’t have any comment. In the past, the company has stressed that internal documents provide a snapshot in time and that projections are routinely revised as business conditions change.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk is renowned for setting highly ambitious goals as a way to spur employees to boost their performance. Photo: mike blake/Reuters
Mr. Musk, who founded the company and serves as chairman and chief designer, is renowned for setting highly ambitious goals as a way to spur on employees.
The internal documents projected four Falcon Heavy launches for this year, including a Pentagon mission, and five in 2018. The rocket, powered by 27 engines, is four years late and is now slated to have its maiden test flight in the next three months.
The documents also envisioned more than a dozen launches through the end of 2018 dedicated to the early phase of a SpaceX satellite fleet. So far, the company hasn’t reported lofting a single prototype or demonstration payload, and it hasn’t publicly laid out manufacturing or detailed operating plans.
The internal documents projected that revenue from the nascent satellite-internet business would dwarf the company’s rocket segment in just a few years. At the time, SpaceX envisioned satellite operations garnering more than 40 million subscribers and bringing in more than $30 billion in revenue by 2025.
Last week, Mr. Musk outlined the 2017 and 2018 launch targets as part of a broader presentation of SpaceX’s revised plans to build the most powerful rocket ever and use it to launch giant, reusable spacecraft to Mars within a decade. He didn’t discuss the proposed satellite venture.
Mr. Musk said the Mars initiative is expected to draw much of its funding from SpaceX’s projected boom in commercial, scientific and military launch contracts.
“I’m very excited there is a business case” supporting SpaceX’s Mars ambitions, said Greg Autry, a University of Southern California professor who was a senior member of President Donald Trump’s transition team for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Industry officials and space experts have praised SpaceX’s accomplishments so far, including bringing down global launch prices and ending the traditional monopoly on Pentagon launches held by a joint venture between Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp.
Overall, SpaceX sees frequent launches reusing boosters that already have flown in space as the key to markedly reducing its manufacturing costs, as well as evenutally saving money by relying on a much smaller contingent of ground-support personnel.
If SpaceX successfully completes the three launches scheduled over the next few weeks, its 2017 total will double its entire launch output for 2016.