The success of ' first cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) may mask the fact that the rocket's first commercial satcom mission, launched Oct. 7, must be judged a failure.
SpaceX's recent move into the commercial telecom market finds it serving two very different masters:, its anchor customer, which has invested hundreds of millions in developing the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo vessel and which has been more than pleased with their performance to date; and the commercial satcom market, which has generated more than $1 billion in order backlog for SpaceX, although the company has yet to deliver a spacecraft to a commercial orbit.
The anomaly that crippled one of the Falcon 9's Merlin 1C engines on its first commercial cargo mission fordid nothing to dampen the agency's enthusiasm for the vehicle. If anything, as SpaceX points out, it proved the reliability of a launcher that can fulfill its space and cargo-delivery missions with an engine out.
But the launch, the first of 12 such missions to deliver 20,000 kg (44,000 lb.) of cargo to the ISS under a $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA, was also Falcon 9's first mission for a private-sector customer, satellite messaging services provider Orbcomm, whose prototype second-generation OG2 satellite flew as a secondary payload.
While the Merlin engine anomaly did not disturb the ISS mission, it led to the total loss of the OG2 satellite, a predecessor to a constellation of 18 second-generation spacecraft to be launched on Falcon 9 vehicles in the next two years.
SpaceX's vice president of marketing and communications, Katherine Nelson, says the engine failure meant putting Orbcomm's satellite into its intended orbit would have exceeded safety thresholds set by NASA for operations near the ISS. As a result, OG2 was placed into a considerably lower orbit from which it quickly degraded over the course of three days before reentering the Earth's atmosphere Oct. 10. Orbcomm said Oct. 11 it has filed a notice of claim under its launch insurance policy for the loss of the OG2 prototype, which was insured for up to $10 million. That would largely offset the expected cost of the satellite and its launch, it says.
“We appreciate the complexity and work that SpaceX put into this launch,” Orbcomm CEO Marc Eisenberg said Oct. 11. “SpaceX has been a supportive partner, and we are highly confident in their team and technology.”
SpaceX was quick to acknowledge the first-stage engine anomaly that occurred when a sudden pressure loss without an explosion led to a shutdown command about 79 sec. into the nearly 10-min. ascent to orbit. But with Dragon speeding toward the ISS, SpaceX sought to accent the positive.
“Like the Saturn V [which experienced engine loss on two flights] and modern airliners, Falcon 9 is designed to handle an engine-out situation and still complete its mission,” SpaceX said on its website Oct. 8. “No other rocket currently flying has this ability.”
Notably absent from SpaceX's assessment of the launch mishap was any mention of OG2. But Nelson said Orbcomm knew the risks when it signed on for the Falcon 9 mission.
“Orbcomm requested that SpaceX carry one of their small satellites [weighing a few hundred pounds versus Dragon at over 12,000 pounds] on this flight so that they could gather test data before we launch their full constellation next year,” Nelson said Oct. 11. “The higher the orbit, the more test data they can gather, so they requested that we attempt to restart and raise altitude. NASA agreed to allow that, but only on condition that there be substantial propellant reserves, since the orbit would be close to the space station.”
Nelson said Orbcomm understood the orbit-raising maneuver was tentative. “SpaceX would not have agreed to fly their satellite otherwise, since this was not part of the core mission and there was a known, material risk of no altitude raise,” she said.
Whether there was a material risk of losing the spacecraft entirely just days after launch is unclear. Orbcomm did not return telephone queries by press time.
Shortly after the launch, Orbcomm said it was working with prime contractor. to raise OG2's orbit using onboard propulsion, a workaround that probably would have depleted fuel reserves and potentially limited the spacecraft's service life to weeks. Following the spacecraft's deorbit, Orbcomm said it had “verified various functionality checkouts,” including power, attitude-control, thermal and data-handling, as well as the satellite's unique communications payload, which incorporates a highly reprogrammable software radio with common hardware. Orbcomm says the data will allow it to focus on completing and launching the OG2 satellites as the primary mission payloads on two planned Falcon 9 launches—the first in mid-2013 and the second in 2014—directly into their operational orbit.
“Had Orbcomm been the primary payload on this mission, as planned for the upcoming launches, we believe the OG2 prototype would have reached the desired orbit,” Orbcomm said in its Oct. 11 statement.
Under the terms of its $46.6 million agreement with SpaceX, Orbcomm planned to launch its 18 next-generation spacecraft atop six now-defunct Falcon 1e rockets, an enhanced version of the Falcon 1 light-launcher that suffered three failures before delivering Malaysia's RazakSat to low Earth orbit in July 2009.
When SpaceX shelved plans to continue operating the small-class Falcon 1e, OG2 payloads were shifted to the Falcon 9 manifest. Given the Falcon 9's advertised price of around $59 million per launch, Orbcomm is getting a bargain, despite the loss of OG2.
Nelson says the Orbcomm launch dates are not yet set, though the company's 2013 manifest lists at least seven launches. A dedicated Orbcomm mission would bring that to eight.
The current mishap is not SpaceX's first stumble in the commercial satcom market. In 2011, it lost an arbitration dispute with Avanti Communications of London when it was unable to meet the fleet operator's contracted schedule for launching the Hylas-1 telecommunications satellite. SpaceX was forced to return Avanti's $7.56 million launch deposit, and the Hylas-1 satellite was lofted by a European Ariane 5.
Nor was Falcon 9's engine anomaly a first—during its inaugural flight June 4, 2010, the rocket appeared to experience a slight roll at liftoff. In addition, a few days after that launch, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said he was surprised by a pronounced roll that occurred following the rocket's upper-stage firing, though it did not affect the payload's insertion vector and had no adverse impact on the mission.