In the next 10 years, Elon Musk wants to send people to Mars.

By the end of this decade, the 42-year-old CEO and chief designer of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) plans to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). And next year, with the debut of a new Falcon Heavy rocket, Musk is aiming to fly reusable first-stage cores that could dramatically lower the cost of launch.

But for Musk, who founded SpaceX 12 years ago with the goal of colonizing other planets, the immediate future will be devoted to the more mundane task of launching commercial satellites.

After two flawless missions in December and January, during which the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sent its first commercial payloads to geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO), SpaceX is poised to take on established industry heavyweights, notably the European Ariane 5. The missions could also enable SpaceX to compete this year for launches of national security payloads that, until now, have been the sole proprietorship of the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture United Launch Alliance, which manages government missions of the Delta 4 and Atlas 5 rockets.

As a result of the Falcon 9's recent success, Musk is enjoying a degree of credibility with customers and competitors that he lacked as little as three months ago. At the same time, Musk—who is also the founder and CEO of Tesla Motors—is bracing for a relentless pace of satcom launches over the next 24 months, a manifest that will test SpaceX's ability to compete seriously for the 20-plus commercial satellites launched to GTO each year.

“We've got to build a lot of rockets, and launch a lot of rockets, and do each one as perfectly as possible,” Musk tells Aviation Week, touting SpaceX's commercial and government missions as a means to fund the company's loftier ambitions, including reusable rocket cores that could radically lower the cost of launch, and a new staged-combustion engine he hopes to begin testing at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi this year. “I want to make sure we don't lose sight of the reason we're doing these launches. But at the same time, we're going to ramp up our operational missions,”he says.

After suffering repeated setbacks in fielding new Merlin 1D engines for the Falcon 9, the SpaceX manifest is loaded with 15 launches this year, four of which are expected to slip into 2015. Next year's manifest is even heavier, with 15 launches listed, excluding 2014 missions that are likely to shift. With some $5 billion in contracts to date and roughly 70% of the Falcon 9 produced in-house, Musk says one of his biggest challenges will be doubling the company's current production rate of Falcon 9 cores.

“Within a year, we need to get it from where it is right now, which is about a rocket core every four weeks, to a rocket core every two weeks,” Musk says.

By the end of 2015, says SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, the company plans to ratchet up production to 40 cores per year.

“We're right now on a schedule where we can produce the vehicles every month,” she says. “What we need to do is ramp up so we can meet our manifest for next year in time.”

Advertised at $56.5 million per launch, Falcon 9 missions to GTO cost almost $15 million less than a ride atop a Chinese Long March 3B and are competitive with the cost to launch a midsize satellite in the lower position on a European Ariane 5 ECA (see graphic on page 49).

Built by Airbus Defense and Space and managed by commercial launch service provider Arianespace, the Ariane 5 is arguably the most reliable rocket in the world. With a string of 58 consecutive successes, it commands more than 50% of the global commercial launch market today.

Since 2005, Arianespace has improved its competitiveness to such an extent that some €200 million ($273 million) in annual subsidies from the 20-nation European Space Agency (ESA) have been halved. In addition, the reliability of the Ariane 5 has allowed the company to increase launch prices, though it has also reduced costs as the result of a recent bulk buy of 18 Ariane 5 rockets that saved more than 5% on the order.

As SpaceX and other launch contenders enter the sector—including new rockets in India, China and Russia—Europe is also investing in a midlife upgrade of the Ariane 5, the Ariane 5 ME, which aims to boost performance 20% with no corresponding increase in cost. At the same time, Europe is considering funding a smaller, less capable but more affordable successor to the heavy-lift launcher, the Ariane 6, which would send up to 6,500 kg (14,330 lb.) to GTO for around $95 million per launch.

ESA is expected to decide in December whether to pursue development of the three-stage rocket, which uses three solid boosters as its core, an almost identical solid booster for the second stage and a restartable cryogenic third stage that is now in development for Ariane 5 ME.

But the Falcon 9 is not just changing the way launch-vehicle providers do business; its reach has gone further, prompting satellite makers and commercial fleet operators to retool business plans in response to the low-cost rocket. In March 2012, Boeing announced the start of a new line of all-electric telecommunications spacecraft, the 702SP, which are designed to launch in pairs on a Falcon 9 v1.1. Anchor customers Asia Broadcast Satellite (ABS) of Hong Kong and Mexico's SatMex plan to loft the first two of four such spacecraft on a Falcon 9 in December in a launch window that opens this year, though SatMex owner Eutelsat said last month that the launch has moved to early 2015.

Using electric rather than chemical propulsion will mean the satellites take months, rather than weeks, to reach their final orbital destination. But because all-electric spacecraft are about 40% lighter than their conventional counterparts, the cost to launch them is considerably less than that for a chemically propelled satellite.

Since unveiling its new line of satellites, Boeing has yet to secure additional customers for an electric 702SP. Nonetheless, other spacecraft manufacturers, some with backing from commercial fleet operators, are following Boeing's lead. In Europe, ESA and French space agency CNES are investing in the Neosat satellite platform, an electric propulsion system for geostationary missions.

Satellite fleet operator SES is also contracting with ESA and manufacturer OHB AG of Germany to design an all-electric comsat under ESA's Electra program.

Combined with the low-cost Falcon 9 launches, Boeing's all-electric spacecraft make for a formidable pairing against the Ariane 5 ECA. But European industry officials argue that the midlife upgrade of the rocket and its new restartable upper stage will position Europe to compete for dual launches of all-electric spacecraft, including the ability to carry electric payloads closer to their operational orbit than the Falcon 9, at no additional cost.

Meanwhile, as ESA ministers mull whether to approve what is expected to be at least €4 billion in new money for the Ariane 6, ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain is aiming to reduce the agency's development and operational costs in a stark departure from past practice: Until now, the Ariane family of rockets has been built largely with money contributed by ESA governments seeking to participate in the program rather than through competitive industry bids. This means governments commit multiyear funding to the development with the expectation of a roughly 90% return on investment in the form of industrial workshare.

But in July, when Dordain presents ESA's member states with industry proposals for building the Ariane 6, he will seek government contributions based on the best value for money, not geographic return on investment.

“To have competitive launchers, we need to rethink the launch sector in Europe,” Dordain emphasizes.

Francois Auque, head of the space systems division at Airbus Defense and Space, says if ESA would allow industry to design rockets the same way the French defense ministry allows their contractors to manage the M51 ballistic missile program, “the cost would be much lower.”

Auque says he admires Musk's approach to manufacturing the Falcon 9, the first stage of which was initially powered by nine Merlin 1 engines developed for the now-retired Falcon 1 light-launcher.

“It's a classic industrial strategy, rather than a technology strategy” Auque said last December. “In Europe, they would have had a multibillion development program to create a new engine that is nine times the power of the current one.”

Musk agrees that the Falcon 9 has not stretched the envelope to revolutionize rocket technology. Nonetheless, he says the launcher is a leg up over the competition.

“If we're building a rocket from scratch, in Los Angeles, with extremely high labor rates, and we're still beating the Chinese and the Russians, there must be something in the technology that's good,” he says.

If SpaceX can achieve its short-term goal of developing a fully and rapidly reusable first-stage booster, “then I think that has revolutionary potential,” Musk says. “I really encourage the other rocket makers to go and re-baseline their plans to include reusability. Otherwise, their rockets are not going to be able to compete.”

That will be no easy task, given the mass tradeoffs associated with protecting rocket hardware from the devastating effects of atmospheric reentry, as well as the damage caused by saltwater during ocean landings.

Last year, SpaceX attempted a propulsively controlled reentry over the Pacific Ocean following the Falcon 9 v1.1's Sept. 29 qualification flight from Vandenberg AFB, Calif. Part of the company's longer-term goal of re-using launch stages, Musk gave the attempt only a slim chance of working. The rocket booster re-lit twice, but in a post-launch missive on Twitter, he said the vehicle “spun up due to aero torque, so fuel centrifuged and we flamed out.”

Initial tests of a vertical-landing and recovery system have been conducted at SpaceX's test site in McGregor, Texas, using the Grasshopper demonstrator, a Merlin 1D-powered first stage. More recently, Grasshopper took the vehicle to 820 ft. and included a lateral transfer of some 330 ft. The company plans to move on to tests of a larger version of the Grasshopper, also called the Falcon 9R (reusable). Instead of a single Merlin 1D, the v1.1 successor will have nine 1Ds. Testing will be conducted at a specially constructed site at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Next week SpaceX plans to fly a set of four new “landing legs” on the Falcon 9's fourth resupply run to the ISS. The mission is one of a dozen cargo runs the company is conducting for NASA under a $1.6 billion fixed-price contract awarded in December 2008 that calls for the Falcon 9 and its Dragon cargo capsule to deliver 20,000 kg to the orbiting outpost by the end of 2015.

Shotwell says the March 16 mission will see the first stage land in the Atlantic Ocean downrange from the SpaceX launch site at Cape Canaveral. She says the goal is to fly and recover a first-stage booster on land this year.

“We'll do a lot of incremental testing, and we'll go from flying downrange, or basically recovering it from the water downrange, to doing some boost-back maneuvers that incrementally get us closer to land,” she says. “We have a goal—I'm not saying we're going to achieve it, but we're working toward the goal of landing a first stage on land this year.”

Shotwell said the legs do not weigh much, and that mass trades are negligible on the first stage. “The mass of the recovery hardware is not a dramatic impact on payload performance,” she says. “What impacts is the fuel we need to reserve to execute the reentry and the landing burns.”

Conservatively, she says, the first-stage mass trade is roughly 1:10. “If I put 1,000 pounds on the first stage, I'm only losing 100 pounds of payload or so to orbit,” she notes.

Previously scheduled for Feb. 22, the NASA launch marks the first of four such missions SpaceX will conduct this year. But whether SpaceX can perform under the terms of its NASA cargo resupply agreement without disrupting the flow of its commercial manifest remains to be seen. For comparison, Arianespace typically lofts just one or two government missions annually on the Ariane 5 rocket—missions that often take priority over commercial launches.

However, Shotwell says SpaceX executes its launch schedule on a first-come, first-served basis and is planning to add capacity to its Florida launch site.

“Our customers understand if there's an emergency on the space station, we may have to move things around,” she says. “But we're also planning our operations to have extra capacity at our launch site. So if we have to move stuff around, we're hoping to still get our customers in in the month that they're looking to fly.”

Whether Musk can continue charging bargain-basement prices for Falcon 9—and ultimately Falcon Heavy—missions is another matter that SpaceX competitors and customers are closely watching.

Arianespace Chairman and CEO Stephane Israel has repeatedly pointed to SpaceX's $1.6 billion NASA contract as keeping the company's commercial missions at an artificially low price-point. In January, he questioned whether SpaceX can maintain such pricing when it charges $120-140 for U.S. government missions.

“That's wishful thinking on their part,” Musk says, adding that the acid test for the NASA contract is whether Arianespace could execute the terms of the NASA agreement for the agreed-to price. “Arianespace would go bankrupt faster if they got our NASA contract.”

Musk says NASA pays $120 million for each SpaceX cargo flight to the space station, which includes launches of the recoverable Dragon cargo ship atop a Falcon 9, as well as the cargo-laden spacecraft's return to Earth. “That is the total cost, there's not anything additional,” he says.

Last month, SpaceX moved a step closer to bidding for U.S. national security launch contracts when the Air Force announced that the Sept. 29 debut of the Falcon 9 v1.1 will count as the first of three launches needed to qualify the rocket. The Air Force signed a deal in December with ULA for the purchase of up to 50 rocket cores under the service's Evolved, Expendable Launch Vehicle program; 14 will be open for competition with SpaceX starting this year.

“It should happen this year, in time to compete for the first round of the EELV,” Shotwell says, despite having “much stricter” requirements than the Air Force imposed on Boeing and Lockheed when they sought Air Force certification more than a decade ago for lofting spy satellites into orbit. “We anticipate awards in the fourth quarter of calendar year 2014,” she notes.

In the meantime, SpaceX is preparing to test and qualify the Falcon Heavy next year. The rocket will use Falcon 9 cores for a combined 27 engines to power its first stage. Although slated to debut in 2014, Musk says the company's production schedule is too tight to support a test flight in 2014.

“We need to find three additional cores that we could produce, send them through testing and then fly without disrupting our launch manifest,” Musk says. “I'm hopeful we'll have Falcon Heavy cores produced approximately around the end of the year. But just to get through test and qualification, I think it's probably going to be sometime early next year when we launch.”

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