SpaceX is dependent on its reputation of success and reliability. There is no room in SpaceX’s 2018 launch schedule for major failures. The successful launch of the Falcon Heavy with a Tesla Roadster as the payload has repaired the long delays of the program, but in the business of space, you’re only as good as your last mission.
SpaceX’s reputation will be determined by the successful implementation of three critical elements of their program. Failure of any of the three elements and SpaceX could be facing a public relations (PR) nightmare; however, success will prove Elon Musk’s lofty visions for the company might be more than just talk.
SpaceX Must Do No. 1 – Consistency in Payload Delivery
The Falcon 9 program has moved out of the novice phase and into the professional phase. The question remains as to whether or not SpaceX can consistently put payloads into orbit.
Landing the booster after these launches dazzles the public, but has no impact on the effectiveness or cost efficiency of the program. Most of the boosters are the previous Block 3 or 4 versions and will not be reused. There is an issue with the booster landings. How long will paying customers accept SpaceX’s waste of resources on the ‘reusable’ PR parlor trick?
The other issue cropping up is the reliability of the fairing on the nose of the rocket. There are persistent issues with the fairing and while SpaceX absolved themselves of the loss of the super secret Zuma satellite, questions still remain as to the role of the fairing release after launch.
SpaceX Must Do No. 2 – Prove Falcon Heavy is Reliable
The inaugural launch of the Falcon Heavy was a spectacular success for SpaceX. The PR kudos continue to pour in with every new sighting by astronomers as the alternate human, Starman, drives his Tesla out further in the solar system.
All that could be lost if the next two 2018 scheduled launches of the Falcon Heavy experience problems. Failed launches of the Heavy would erase much of the PR boost of the first launch and call back into question the wisdom of a 27-engine booster. SpaceX has to duplicate the home run first launch at least twice more before customers will feel warm and fuzzy about the Falcon Heavy.
SpaceX Must Do No. 3 – Success of the F9 Block 5 Version
Block 5 is the final version of the Falcon 9 booster and it goes into service in 2018. It is the booster that will be rated for human spaceflight and much of SpaceX’s future as a commercial space program depends on proving it answers all the concerns of the four previous versions.
NASA is requiring seven successful booster flights of the Block 5 version of Falcon 9 before it will be rated for humans. That means SpaceX has to successfully launch the same version of the booster, without significant redesigns, seven times.
SpaceX has scheduled the maiden and second flight of the Block 5 version for April. It then has to fit five more successful flights between May and November. Once achieved, SpaceX can be approved to send astronauts up on the Block 5 booster in December of this year.
2018 A Year of Glory or Humiliation
Elon Musk has a reputation for promising more than he can deliver. He is a master of overconfidence but now results matter. He knows how to carefully craft a situation to amaze the public.
The Falcon Heavy launch was one of those moments. When they see the video of Starman orbiting Earth in a shiny red Tesla with the top down, people don’t remember that the Falcon Heavy was supposed to be ready in 2013. When they see the first stage of a rocket magically land on the pad, people don’t care that the booster was never going to be reused again.
2018 isn’t going to be a time when showmanship is going to cover up glaring issues. If there are problems meeting this year’s critical goals, people will see the man behind the curtain.
However, if SpaceX manages to achieve these milestones with minimal problems, SpaceX will be the shining star of space exploration.