Orbcomm's Elusive Falcon 9 Launch Date TBD


It's a big year for SpaceX. Aside from souped-up space capsules, reusable rockets and pending certification to compete for Air Force missions, 2014 is the company's first year as a credible contender in the commercial launch business, a revenue stream crucial to funding all of the above.

With the launch of SES-8 in December last year, SpaceX began working off what it says is $4 billion in backlog, including a half dozen launches of next-generation Iridium mobile satcom birds and the world's first all-electric propulsion spacecraft being built by Boeing for commercial operators in Bermuda and France.

For now, the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company lists a dozen missions on the Falcon 9 2014 manifest, following two launches earlier this year, even though SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell has said the real number is closer to 10 or 11.

But back-to-back helium leaks on the Falcon 9 first stage in recent months have contributed to delays in at least two campaigns, including the ISS cargo resupply run for NASA in April and six Orbcomm satellites that slipped from May 10 to June 12, then to June 15. Just this morning, according to Patrick Air Force Base, the launch date was changed to "TBD."

If nothing else goes wrong, SpaceX could still get off another seven or eight missions this year, including potentially four for commercial customers. But any remaining launches are likely to slip, bringing the 2015 manifest to a somewhat laughable 20 or more missions next year, including a demo of the new Falcon Heavy from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station slated for the second quarter, and the first two Iridium launches in the second half.

Why laughable? Not because SpaceX isn't capable of it. Launching at least 20 missions annually (a mix of military, civil and commercial) is a stated goal. And with the ability to launch once a month -– as they proved with SES-8 in December and Thaicom 6 in January -- SpaceX is threatening to make good on that promise. Two months ago the company was producing about one rocket every 28 days, though Shotwell said in March the plan is to double that by the end of this year.

But the challenge SpaceX faces in maintaining a credible manifest isn't just SpaceX –- it involves other variables in the commercial launch equation as well.

In addition to its own technical setbacks, SpaceX has seen a fire at Florida's eastern range delay the planned March ISS cargo run that was already running late, due to contamination in the Dragon cargo-vessel's trunk. It slipped to early April, then again to mid-April as a result of a Falcon 9 first-stage helium leak.

More recently, after dealing with a second helium leak in a different part of the Falcon 9 core, SpaceX had to wait while Orbcomm managed “a minor issue” on one of its six OG2 communications spacecraft during final integration last week. The problem resulted in “a few extra days of delay to perform precautionary steps to ensure there are no operational concerns with the satellite,” according to a statement on Orbcomm's website.

“We intend to re-encapsulate the satellites this evening,” the New Jersey-based company said Tuesday, “with static test firing of the rocket scheduled for Thursday or Friday this week.”

I've asked SpaceX twice to confirm a new Orbcomm launch date, but they have not. Earlier this morning, Patrick Air Force Base showed it scheduled for June 15, with a launch window from 8-8:53 p.m. But a few hours later, the site was updated to reflect the next launch as “TBD.” Orbcomm says bad weather at the Cape scrubbed the Thursday static fire, and that SpaceX plans to conduct the test today, with June 16 as a back-up date to the June 15 launch target.

In the meantime, as the first half of 2014 draws to a close, SpaceX has launched just two missions, a fact that its customers do not find at all amusing.

Earlier this week, the AsiaSat 8 satellite, built by Space Systems/Loral (SSL) for fleet operator Asia Satellite Telecommunications, arrived at the Cape in preparation for a Falcon 9 launch in July. It is the first of two such telecom birds the Hong Kong-based company expects to launch this year on the rocket.

We are pleased that AsiaSat 8 has arrived safely at the launch base,” SSL President John Celli said in a June 11 news release. “Now, after many years of working together, both AsiaSat and SSL eagerly anticipate our first SpaceX launch.”

Celli and AsiaSat aren't alone. With the cost of an Atlas 5 out of reach for most, Russia's Proton launcher undergoing a failure review, Sea Launch's Zenit somewhat a question mark and Europe's Ariane 5 backed up, thanks to an issue on Australia's Optus 10 satellite, commercial operators have nowhere else to go.

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