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SpaceX Retreating Launch Schedule

SpaceX has had three successful launches so far this year. The problem is that one launch per month is a major retreat from the 21 launches it had in 2018. Looking forward, SpaceX next three quarters will not improve. Based on the available information they will only attempt ten more launches before the end of the year.

[NOTE:  This is a follow-up story to Tuesday’s article – SpaceX Implosion]

The One and Only: The 1st and last Falcon Heavy launch one year ago

Soviet Style Space Program…Everything is on a Need To Know Basis

Much like to old Soviet Space program, SpaceX avoids making public announcements regarding its launch plans. On its website, SpaceX lists the contracts it has by the customer or satellite name in alphabetical order but doesn’t give a date or time for the launch. Most of the information on SpaceX launches is derived from secondary sources and legally required filings. Here is a list of what is known about the rest of the 2019 SpaceX schedule:

ªNL – Launch not likely in 2019.
¹The original target date for launch.
²Author’s best estimate of the likelihood of launch on that day, or during that time period based on multiple sources.
³Launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

[Primary Source: Spaceflight Now Secondary Sources: Wikipedia, RocketLaunch.live, NASA, Brian Webb]

Based on multiple sources, four of these launches are unlikely to occur in 2019. The Starlink flight [14 May] has disappeared from most launch schedule websites. This is a program that would seem to be the lowest priority and would add more expense to SpaceX with little or no revenue in return.

There are some reports that the late June Dragon 2 abort test flight is being pushed back and that the 25 July Dragon 2 test flight with a crew will be no earlier than November at the earliest. This would make the first Dragon 2 delivery of a crew to ISS unlikely until 2020. [Source:  TASS 22 Mar 2019] Comments from the unnamed space representative said that the Dragon 2 parachute system would have to be replaced. If true, the launch abort test in June could be significantly delayed and the crew test would hang in the balance of a completely new parachute system, making the crew test unlikely even by November. 

Finally, the Sirius Radio Satellite schedule for the 4th quarter of 2019 would seem unlikely based on the flights being pushed back or already scheduled in the 4th quarter.

Falcon Heavy Headaches

Another major issue in the SpaceX schedule is the second Falcon Heavy flight now scheduled for June. Everything would have to go perfectly on the 7 April Falcon Heavy flight for any chance of meeting the planned June flight as two of the three boosters on the April flight are to be reused for June flight. Any issues with the two side boosters in April would require SpaceX to find a replacement booster(s.) It is questionable if SpaceX has any Block 5 boosters to spare.

In addition, the launch pad has to be configured for a Falcon Heavy launch and then reconfigured for a normal Falcon 9 launch. That means weeks of extra work between launches that render the pad useless.

Dragon 2 Human-Rating Race

SpaceX has had an advantage in the race to provide a human-rated space capsule. It already has a cargo capsule that is already operational for unmanned flights to and from the International Space Station (ISS.) Since the crewed Dragon 2 capsule will be under autopilot as its default, the basic spacecraft needed little conversion to fly its first test mission to ISS and back.

Dragon 2 Cargo Capsule – already flying

Many looked at this month’s [2 March 2019] Dragon 2 test flight as a major milestone; however, it really was a cargo flight with seats, a dummy, and an Earth-shaped plush toy. It really proved little about the human-rating of the capsule, but it was a big show for SpaceX.

Dragon 2 Crew Capsule – take out the cargo, add seats and touchscreens

The reason that it’s significant that Russia news agencies are reporting a major delay in Dragon 2 testing is that Russia would have to be contracted to provide ISS crew flights if the United States doesn’t have a human-rated capsule by the end of this year. Since SpaceX doesn’t usually report problems in their space program to the United States media, the first report of the schedule being significantly pushed back would likely come from Russia.

If it is true that SpaceX can’t launch the first crewed test until 2020, it would be devastating to its Dragon 2 program and open the door for Boeing’s Starliner to be tested and rated by the end of this year.

What’s SpaceX’s Problem?

SpaceX seems to be in financial trouble. The ten percent reduction in the staff indicates a severe cash flow problem. The 40% reduction in the launch schedule would indicate the financial issues are more severe than they would publicly acknowledge.

2018 was a year of primarily paying the bills with commercial launches. That may have actually cost SpaceX in the long term. Now they are in a heated race with Boeing to win the crew capsule business and because they only have one test launch of the Falcon Heavy they didn’t land the military contracts they desperately need. Now they are trying to prove that the Falcon Heavy is reliable with two launches in three months. SpaceX fans applaud the company on its brilliant strategy but this year their strategy isn’t working.