commercial space, Dragon Capsule, Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, manned space program, Northrop Grumman, reliability, reusability, space exploration, space flight, space travel, spaceflight, SpaceX, Zuma
Last February I wrote that SpaceX had three “must do” things in 2018 to prove that all the self-promotion and bragging is justified. It’s time to look back and see how SpaceX did in achieving these critical milestones.
No. 1 – Consistency in SpaceX Payload Delivery: B
SpaceX had 21 launches this year. All of them successful, meaning they didn’t blow up in the first few minutes. This was three more launches than the previous year. One of the launches was the test flight for the Falcon Heavy rocket, but the rest were largely for SpaceX customers.
There was only one payload that did not make it into orbit. The Zuma military satellite was shrouded in secrecy, which means no one had to take the blame or acknowledge the payload failure. A report indicates that SpaceX was not to blame, but there are discrepancies in the live reporting by the SpaceX Launch Announcer that indicate a failure of the SpaceX fairings to deploy on time.
That gives SpaceX a 95% success rate, which would seem to be great, but with billions of dollars invested in payloads, one failure is too many. SpaceX gets a B.
No. 2 – Prove Falcon Heavy is Reliable: D+
SpaceX had a major publicity win with the first launch of Falcon Heavy rocket last February. The stunt of launching a Tesla Roadster was a stroke of public relations brilliance that overshadowed the fact that no additional Falcon Heavy launches followed the single success.
The next Falcon Heavy launch is scheduled for March of 2019. If all goes well, SpaceX will be one step closer to proving reliability, but SpaceX has not made its case to the people who can afford to pay SpaceX to launch their satellites.
Another Falcon Heavy rocket is scheduled to be launched in April, but those are the only two Falcon Heavy launches scheduled in 2019. The fact that the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) announced in late October that it awarded a Heavy Lift contract to SpaceX’s competitor, United Launch Alliance (ULA) indicates that SpaceX is not considered reliable and/or as economical in the heavy launch market.
If SpaceX has any issues with either of the 2019 Falcon Heavy launches, it may have to end its Falcon Heavy program for a lack of customers. SpaceX gets a D+.
No. 3 – Success of the F9 Block 5 Version: C+
There are two primary missions of the Block 5 booster. First, it has to be proven to be safe for human flight. Second, the Block 5 booster is supposed to be the savior of space travel because of reusability and reliability. It is supposed to have a quick turnaround from launch to re-launch and it is touted as a booster that can easily be used ten times or more.
In 2018, SpaceX put up six Block 5 boosters in ten launches. One Block 5 booster has been used three times and two boosters have been used twice. Of the three Block 5 boosters that have been reused, the average turnaround time from launch to re-launch is 99 days.
SpaceX had to delay the December 2018 crewed mission back to June 2019. That means they failed to prove human rating in 2018.
The reusability and reliability of the Block 5 booster are also still in question. They have to be given credit for the ten successful launches, and the turnaround time is better than the Block 4 booster turnaround time (Average 177 days.)
Still, there is not enough information to determine if the Block 5 will achieve its primary goals. SpaceX gets a C+.
SpaceX gets an A+ in generating excitement and a polished public image that invites public support; however, the public image is not what counts in the commercial space business. SpaceX is practically giving away space on some of its rockets to stay in the public spotlight with its launches. The reality is that SpaceX maintained its ability to stay in business one more year, but that was not what it needed to do. Overall grade: C+