|SpaceX Has Successful Launch As It Ramps Up Operational Tempo|
The mission for Iridium Communications is part of fast-paced launch efforts
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts off at the Cape Canaveral Spaceport in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Sept. 7. Photo: Spacex/Planet Pix/Zuma Press
Oct. 9, 2017 10:03 a.m. ET
LOMPOC, Calif.—Space Exploration Technologies Corp. blasted 10 commercial satellites into orbit Monday, completing the first of a pair of consecutive launches slated from opposite coasts in roughly two days.
The predawn liftoff from central California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, which put the cluster of communications satellites into space for Iridium Communications Inc., IRDM +0.44% was the 14th consecutive successful launch this year for SpaceX, as entrepreneur Elon Musk’s closely held company is called.
The bright orange glow during ascent filled the night sky, and the clear weather meant the plumes of the returning first stage were clearly visible as it headed back for a pinpoint landing on a floating platform in the Pacific Ocean.
More than an hour after launch, SpaceX confirmed all the satellites had been deployed in their proper orbits.
The company previously launched 20 satellites for Iridium, its single largest commercial customer, and is contracted to carry out five additional unmanned launches for the company.
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SpaceX plans to put up a commercial satellite for a different customer on another Falcon 9 rocket from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center as early as Wednesday afternoon, demonstrating its bicoastal prowess to dispatch and organize launch personnel on such a compressed timeline.
Through the end of 2018, Mr. Musk’s management team is targeting one launch every two weeks on average, a pace exceeding any company or government schedule world-wide.
The company pulled off a similar double-header feat over two days during the summer, with the moves signaling increasing capabilities to conduct fast-paced operations. SpaceX officials have said their long-term goal is to launch several times a day and quickly turn around reused boosters more akin to commercial aircraft than traditional rocketry.
The Air Force recently suggested it is moving toward the ability to launch two rockets from various Florida pads on the same day. To boost its overall launch capability and avoid delays often associated with sharing Florida facilities with the Pentagon, SpaceX is building a separate pad near Brownsville, Texas. But that facility has been delayed by at least a couple of years and isn’t likely to begin operations until the end of the decade.
Wednesday’s launch in Florida is scheduled to precede the first launch of a larger, more-powerful derivative of the Falcon 9, called the Falcon Heavy, featuring three times as many engines and a substantially greater payload capacity. The beefed-up rocket is slated to blast off from the same Florida pad before the end of the year.
But emergence of the Falcon Heavy, roughly four years later than initially proposed, comes as the market generally is shrinking for such heavy-lift rockets tailored to handle the largest commercial payloads. Instead, commercial-fleet operators increasingly are looking to buy and launch midsize and smaller satellites designed to be more flexible and efficient, particularly serving mobile users.
The company hasn’t indicated when the second Falcon Heavy is likely to go up. Mr. Musk has said development, which cost roughly $1 billion, turned out to be more difficult than anticipated—or “crazy hard” as he described it during a March press conference.
Meanwhile, SpaceX and other aerospace contractors are maneuvering to determine whether the National Aeronautics and Space Administration intends to pursue possible public-private partnerships to send astronauts back to the moon. Career NASA officials are devising new strategies to respond to initiatives by private companies to explore the solar system, though the White House hasn’t proposed anything specific.
Mr. Musk’s own plan to send humans to Mars envisions ultimately phasing out both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, replacing them with an even more powerful deep-space booster, called the BFR.
Separately from that proposal, Mr. Musk previously disclosed plans to send an unmanned capsule to Mars, perhaps as soon as 2018, as part of his ultimate vision for a private enterprise to colonize the red planet.
Over the years, Mr. Musk has repeatedly said his top-priority goal—more important than the economic success of his separate space and electric-car companies—is to build colonies on Mars, envisioning thousands of inhabitants served by airline-like flights to and from earth.
SpaceX also is seeking to garner more Pentagon launches in the next few years. Last week, the Air Force released a request for industry proposals for prototypes of next-generation rockets. Planning to use some version of public-private partnerships, Pentagon brass are looking for all-domestic options able to transport military communications satellites as well as spy payloads in the next decade.