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Will 2018 be a step forward or a step back for SpaceX?

The 18th and final Falcon 9 launch of 2017 created a dramatic scene in the skies above Southern California after sunset December 22, seen here from SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California, headquarters. (credit: SpaceX)

It’s hard to argue against the claim that 2017 was the best year in SpaceX’s fifteen-year history. Many will point to its successful reuse of Falcon 9 first stages, flown on five missions during the year. Some will note the repairs to Space Launch Complex 40, which resumed launches last month, or bringing Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center back to life for the first launches there since the end of the shuttle program.

But perhaps the real achievement for SpaceX in 2017, and why it was so successful, was that it was a “no drama” year for the company. The company had no launch failures like in 2015 and 2016 that grounded it for months and raised doubts that SpaceX could really revolutionize the space industry. In 2017, SpaceX just launched and launched and launched: 18 times, all successfully. That’s the same number of launches that China carried out, using a broad lineup of vehicles, and unlike SpaceX, not all of those launches were successful.

Even recovery and reuse of first stages became routine for SpaceX in 2017. Landings that were once nail-biting experiments—because so many of the initial attempts failed, in dramatic fashion—became a normal part of operations. It became news only when SpaceX decided not to attempt a landing, as it did on its last mission of 2017, a launch of a fourth group of Iridium NEXT satellites, possibly because it wasn’t worth attempting to land and reuse a first stage that was making its second flight.

At first glance, SpaceX will be carrying that momentum of regular, routine launches into 2018. Its first launch is already scheduled for later this week, carrying the classified “Zuma” payload. It has other Falcon 9 launches lined up for later in the month from both Florida and California.

But 2018 won’t be a carbon copy of 2017. SpaceX is taking a risk in 2018 with the introduction of both a new launch vehicle and new spacecraft that, if successful, could offer new triumphs for the company. However, those vehicles, and other projects, carry with them the risks of significant setbacks.

The new launch vehicle, of course, is the long-delayed Falcon Heavy. Rolled out to the pad for the first time last week, the rocket is scheduled for a static fire test in the coming days, followed by a launch perhaps later this month. The rocket, ultimately able to place more than 50 tons into low Earth orbit, will be the largest liquid-fueled rocket to blast off from LC-39A since the Saturn V.

First launches of new rockets are notorious for their high failure rates. And, let’s be clear, this is a new rocket, even if it will be using two used Falcon 9 first stages as its side boosters. Company executives have said that developing the Falcon Heavy was far harder than they initially thought, and even Elon Musk has joked that that the initial launch is “guaranteed to be exciting” as part of setting expectations low for the launch.

Meanwhile, SpaceX has a new spacecraft, the Crew Dragon, or Dragon 2, being developed for NASA’s Commercial Crew program. That spacecraft is supposed to make a test flight without crew in April, followed by one with NASA astronauts on board, in August, but given past schedule delays, no one will be surprised if those dates slip later in to the year—or even into 2019.

Both new vehicles carry significant risks, but with very different rewards. Crew Dragon brings with it a NASA requirement, and public expectation, for higher levels of safety. It’s one thing to lose a $200 million satellite, as SpaceX did with the 2016 Falcon 9 pad explosion that destroyed an Israeli communications satellite, but an accident that resulted in the injury or death of a NASA astronaut would bring with it Congressional scrutiny and a public outcry. Yet, flying astronauts will open new markets for SpaceX, and seems like a necessary step for a company with long-term ambitions of sending humans to Mars. The reward, presumably, balances the risk.

It seems like a different story for Falcon Heavy, though. Should the launch fail, there’s a risk of damage to the company’s reputation—and, depending on where in flight the launch fails, damage to LC-39A, setting back its commercial crew plans.

However, the Falcon Heavy doesn’t seem like an essential part of the company’s long-term plans in the same way as Crew Dragon does. Customers haven’t been lining up to buy launches of the rocket, and some who did have since looked elsewhere because of delays in its development. While the Falcon Heavy offers performance far greater than any existing rocket, there aren’t payloads to match yet—and maybe won’t for years to come.

When SpaceX announced plans for Falcon Heavy years ago, it looked essential to capture the heavier end of the existing commercial launch market that could not be served by the Falcon 9. But since then the Falcon 9’s performance has improved, and it can now launch larger communications satellites once thought to be too big for the rocket, particularly if SpaceX is willing to forego a landing. Only the heaviest communications satellites appear to require the Falcon Heavy, and orders for such satellites are few and far between these days with the satellite industry in the doldrums.

Falcon Heavy is also an architectural dead end for SpaceX. The company has publicly bet its future on the BFR, or Big Falcon Rocket (or Big you-know-what Rocket.) Musk argues that the fully-reusable BFR will be so inexpensive to fly it will make the Falcon rockets obsolete. That seems a bit dubious, but if true, the Falcon Heavy will go long before the smaller, and more popular, Falcon 9. For Falcon Heavy, the reward doesn’t seem to balance the risk in the same way as it does for Crew Dragon.

The BFR introduces its own challenges for SpaceX, too: if the company is serious about developing it for first flight some time in the early 2020s, as Musk suggested in his September speech at the International Astronautical Congress in Australia, work on the vehicle will have to pick up in 2018. (He said then work on the first vehicle would start in the second quarter of 2018, although it remains to be seen if SpaceX will stick to that schedule.) That will draw resources, of both personnel and money, from other projects.

On top of that, SpaceX appears serious about developing its own satellite constellation, or constellations, to provide broadband Internet services. Test satellites will soon be launched, and work on the first constellation will have to start soon as well in order to meet the company’s own deadlines as well as those that will be part of any FCC license it receives. (A side effect of that work could mean a loss of launch business for SpaceX from other companies planning their own constellations: will they trust SpaceX to give them the best deal, and schedule priority, for launching their satellites when SpaceX is developing its own broadband system that will compete with it?)

All these factors mean that SpaceX may be stretched thin this year, which increases the risks of launch failures or other setbacks, or perhaps a slower launch cadence. That would certainly provide more fodder for skeptics of the company who will argue SpaceX’s 2017 performance was a fluke. On the other hand, if SpaceX is able to successfully introduce the Falcon Heavy and Crew Dragon this year, while carrying out routine launches and making progress on BFR and its satellite constellations, maybe there is something special about this company that even the skeptics will have to acknowledge.

Only time will tell. Good luck in 2018, SpaceX. You may need it.


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