Let the Space Price War Begin

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral, on Dec. 3 Photograph by John Raoux/AP Photo

Eleven years in, the grand entrepreneurial experiment called SpaceX still has to prove itself. On Tuesday evening it reached a major milestone, sending a satellite for paying customer SES into geostationary orbit. SpaceX has flown its Falcon 9 rocket seven times and shown that it can reach orbit, dock with the International Space Station, and bring cargo home. Now it’s put a satellite 22,236 miles above the earth’s surface for a fraction of the going price.

Tuesday’s launch came after a final week of anxiety at Cape Canaveral, where Elon Musk and crew camped out to solve mechanical issues that caused a couple of delays. The SpaceX team has had to manage rapid response a lot in the past couple of years, figuring out glitches on the launchpad and solving problems with the vehicle in the air. Whatever they did this time around, it worked.
As the company reports:

Falcon 9 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at 5:41 PM Eastern Time. Approximately 185 seconds into flight, Falcon 9’s second stage’s single Merlin vacuum engine ignited to begin a five minute, 20 second burn that delivered the SES-8 satellite into its parking orbit. Eighteen minutes after injection into the parking orbit, the second stage engine relit for just over one minute to carry the SES-8 satellite to its final geostationary transfer orbit.

The SES-8 satellite weighs 6,918 pounds and will handle communications in the South Asia and Asia Pacific regions. SES operates 54 geostationary satellites that deliver TV broadcasts and high-speed Internet service.

This latest launch is bad news for Russia, Europe, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin. SES paid $55 million to SpaceX for the launch; rivals typically charge $100 million to $200 million. SpaceX has a backlog of about $4 billion worth of launches, many for commercial customers that it can now begin to serve.

Beyond proving its viability as a low-cost option for commercial spaceflight, SpaceX has again demonstrated that its technology appears sound. One more successful flight should open the way for the company to handle some of the military work that has gone to Boeing and Lockheed through their joint venture, United Launch Alliance. (Longtime space journalist Michael Belfiore did a nice job of summing up the situation on his blog.)

We’ll really get a sense of SpaceX’s abilities over the next year. The company plans to launch rockets at a much more ferocious clip, to refine their reusability and to prepare for sending humans to the International Space Station. You can also expect to see SpaceX tormented by politicians with ties to existing launch contractors and military suppliers. May we live in interesting times.

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