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SpaceX and Iridium Sign $492M Launch Contract 96

Posted by Soulskill
from the bringing-home-the-bacon dept.
FleaPlus writes "Following up on the successful first launch of their Falcon 9 rocket, SpaceX has signed a $492M deal for launching several dozen satellites for the Iridium NEXT constellation, the biggest commercial launch deal ever (teleconference notes). This is a needed boost for the US launch industry, which has dwindled to a fraction of the international market due to problematic ITAR arms regulations and high costs. SpaceX's next launch is scheduled for later this summer, carrying the first full version of the Dragon reusable capsule, which will run tests in orbit and then splash down off the California coast."
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SpaceX and Iridium Sign $492M Launch Contract

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  • Good (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Pojut (1027544) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @08:52AM (#32601054) Homepage

    We need private space industry to really start hummin' and making more deals like this. The only way we are going to make space travel actually doable and useful within our lifetimes (or maybe even our kid's lifetimes) is if the private industry really ramps things up.

    Considering how far things have come in just the last decade (hell, even just the last five years) I have high hopes.

    • Re:Good (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Richard_at_work (517087) <<richardprice> <at> <gmail.com>> on Thursday June 17, 2010 @08:54AM (#32601072)
      Boeing, Lockheed and other private companies already handle deals like these regularly - SpaceX is just a new entrant into the market.
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by dylan_- (1661)

        Boeing, Lockheed and other private companies already handle deals like these regularly

        Do they? I thought they got deals to build satellites, not launch them. Got a link?

        • by solarlux (610904)
          They keep losing money at it, which is why Boeing and Lockheed merged their launch divisions into a joint venture several years ago (United Launch Alliance [ulalaunch.com]). Even the joint venture is still laying people off. It will be interesting to see if can SpaceX maintain a low cost profile (i.e. how much money is Elon pumping in behind the scenes??) while obtaining successful outcomes. "Faster, better, cheaper" seems to have a poor track record when it comes to space. The Atlas program has completed some 80+ suc
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Tekfactory (937086)

            As of June 3 this year only $350-400M has been invested into SpaceX total, less than just this one contract. Less than 1/4 their current NASA contract. They have 30 launches booked right now, lets see how many days they can go without an accident.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by cheesybagel (670288)
          Boeing has Delta IV. Lockheed has Atlas V. These are satellite launchers. They do not do many commercial launches since Proton is cheaper and Ariane 5 does not have ITAR limitations either.
        • Re:Good (Score:4, Informative)

          by Ana10g (966013) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @10:12AM (#32601796)
          Here's three:

          Rockets first:

          Next, Launch Capabilities:

          I don't know if LM or Boeing still provide launch services outside of the scope of ULA.

          • Re:Good (Score:5, Insightful)

            by Sheik Yerbouti (96423) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @11:36AM (#32602918) Homepage

            The difference with SpaceX, supposedly, is that they are much less expensive than the incumbents. Their stated goal is to reduce costs by a factor of 10. Which if they achieve their goal is significant. Boeing, LM and ATK are competing with the Russian Soyuz and ESA Ariane for launch contracts and losing badly because of high costs and ITAR restrictions. So SpaceX is very important to US commercial launch. Perhaps the new competition will encourage Boeing, LM and ATK to figure out how to reduce their costs or lose the market entirely.

            Some of the ways SpaceX reduce costs are using in house designs and production for everything. So they are no beholden to subcontractor cost overruns and communications issues. Another way they keep costs down is the designs themselves which are based on well proven ideas that should prove reliable and inexpensive to build and maintain (comparatively speaking).

            • Boeing is basically an engineering firm and contractor these days. Most of the actual work in building a Boeing product is done by other companys.
        • "We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid." --Benjamin Franklin

          Updated: Like dude, ever heard of Google?
      • They're not just a new entrant. With their significantly reduced launch costs they are a game changer. The Falcon 9 has the big guys sweating bullets and the Falcon 1 has the little guys doing the same.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          Once they have proven their launcher with a valid success rate, then their launch costs are valid - until then, they are just a newcomer touting cheaper rates on an unproven platform. They may fail on the next 10 launches, and spend a lot more money finding out what the issues are.
          • by Teancum (67324)

            Funny that you say that. What defines "proven" and how many launches does that take?

            I don't see SpaceX failing on their next 10 launches, although they may indeed lose a vehicle in the next 10 along the way. The ESA has lost Ariane vehicles after several successful launches too, as has RKK Energia with the Soyuz and Progress vehicles, so yeah you may have a point here.

            What makes statements like the one here ("once they have proven their launcher with a valid success rate") is that it is a moving goalpost

            • What defines proven... According To Elan Musk, The first three or four launches he considers beta testing, even if some are launched with an actual payload.
              • by Teancum (67324)

                {{Citation Requested}}

                Seriously, this is simply trying to be critical of somebody because of their success. More to the point, why is it a problem if an actual payload is on a test flight. This was done by NASA and others on early test flights... unless they had money to burn and were on a cost-plus contract where money was not an object.

                In the case of SpaceX, the people buying the slots knew full well that the hardware was not considered "proven" or flight worthy when they signed up for a flight.

                Besides,

      • by Nyeerrmm (940927)

        No, actually, Lockheed and Boeing exclusively offer launch services through ULA now, and ULA exclusively deals with DoD payloads.

        As the article points out, commercial launches in the US have dwindled to nothing, largely due to ITAR restrictions -- its difficult to tell a customer how to interface with the LV when you have to ensure that only US citizens can see the documentation. Only because SpaceX is relatively inexpensive is it worth the hassle. The commercial launch business in the US is all but dead

      • They are now United Launch Alliance, for their rockets.

        They're priced too expensive for commercial customers. Nearly all of their launches are for the U.S. Government. Commercial launches generally use Russian or Ukranian rockets. From what I've read, there have been about 5 launches with Russian rockets to every 1 launch of an american rocket over the course of the last several decades.

        The U.S. govt started the EELV program to upgrade the American rockets in about 1995. The American rockets had fa
    • Given as NASA has become about useless for anything all of a sudden... proof we can't let government take the lead in something as important as space flight.
  • and I hope all goes well. This is a significant step in the history of humankind as a space-faring species, a little corporate step sideways...
  • by AHuxley (892839) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @09:04AM (#32601170) Homepage Journal
    A transcript of an Australian doco on the US space business "The High Frontier"
    http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/content/2005/s1358430.htm [abc.net.au]
    The contracts to help the DoD show real growth for some with connections. Some interesting numbers and private sector deals with the US DoD are listed.
    • by omni123 (1622083) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @09:21AM (#32601292) Homepage

      SIR RICHARD BRANSON: Three years from now we'll be sending paying passengers into space. We'll be sending them - you know, our spaceships will be launching every day.

      Maybe he was a little early with his estimation... (link is 5 years old)

      • by AHuxley (892839)
        Yes the old numbers of "$100,000,000" a year, buying and selling airtime on communication satellites, building the 22 Earth stations for DoD at six locations, 10 to beyond 20? % of the consumer or customer base might be the US gov, shutter control by buying all public data collected over a region of the planet at any price.
        All older facts, but it does point to very healthy aspects of the US space industry.
        Hidden and well connected :)
  • by strack (1051390)
    the thing im really excited about is if spacex can get to the point where reusing the first stage merely involves fishing it out of the atlantic after it parachutes down, putting it back on the launch pad, and fuelling it back up. these engines are designed more for reliability, and have proven that through testing through multiple duty cycles. unlike the space shuttle main engines, which require a teardown and rebuild after every flight. we could see the first ever prospect of real reusability, more a car
    • especially considering the first stage can complete its mission even with a engine failure at any point during its flight.

      Please explain this to me, in my mind, if the first stage conks out halfway through its use-cycle, how is that not a problem? I might be missing something, but how is losing a significant portion of your delta-v not a problem?

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Calinous (985536)

        It has nine engines in the first stage (and another similar engine in the second stage, to save on research and production costs)
              Losing one engine is no longer a reason to detonate the rocket.

        • Ah i see, so basically the first stage can run on 8 engines without having to compromise on the flight-path?

          Interesting, although i would think that it all engines are made equal, and starting out with a first stage with all new engines, that once one fails, others will also be very close to their usefull life..

          Anyway, good to read this, i hope SpaceX does really well

          • by Nyeerrmm (940927)

            Well, it compromises the flight path a little. You have to burn longer and hotter, and probably decrease the lifetime of the other engines a bit. However, you get to the same orbit, which is what really matters.

            Also, what causes an engine failure isn't that it wears out, but is usually a failure to ignite or some other 'gremlin.' This is the same capability that Saturn V had, and they made use of that capability (it was in the Apollo 13 movie, if you remember).

          • The falcon 9 can actually lose 2 engines and make it to orbit ok. But the Saturn V could also make orbit if one of the big F1 engines failed, so long as it didn't fail too early.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Tekfactory (937086)

      Interestingly enough, the shuttle engines COULD be reused without teardowns between each flight if the controls apparatus had been designed differently.

      If you go to the MIT OpenCourseware site and look for the Aerospace Engineering classes lectures on the shuttle, the shuttle was designed before CAD, and if the wiring had been included to test the engines, they could put the whole shuttle in the test harness to test fire the engines.

      There is a lot they would do differently if they were trying to redesign th

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by FleaPlus (6935)

      the thing im really excited about is if spacex can get to the point where reusing the first stage merely involves fishing it out of the atlantic after it parachutes down, putting it back on the launch pad, and fuelling it back up.

      I was really impressed by this bit of the teleconference notes linked in the summary, which shows just how dedicated Elon Musk is about reusability:

      http://www.transterrestrial.com/?p=27574 [transterrestrial.com]

      I asked him if they knew yet why the first stage didn't survive entry, or if they would have to wait for another flight to get better data (because they didn't get the microwave imaging data they wanted). He said that they still didn't know, and might not figure it out until they try again. I followed up, asking if he could conceive of a time that they might just give up on it, and pull the recovery systems out to give them more payload. I was surprised at the vehemence of his answer (paraphrasing): "We will never give up! Never! Reusability is one of the most important goals. If we become the biggest launch company in the world, making money hand over fist, but we're still not reusable, I will consider us to have failed." I told him that I was very gratified to hear that, because I like reusability.

  • What about junk? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by courteaudotbiz (1191083) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @09:36AM (#32601436) Homepage

    This is a needed boost for the US launch industry

    With a boost of commercial launches, won't there also be a boost of space junk when these orbiting things are decommissionned 15 years from now? How does that increase collision risks, like the 2009 Iridium/Kosmos collision [wikipedia.org]?

    Maybe it's time for thinking about mandatory destruction of satellites at the end of their useful life, instead of trying to make money out of launching things only...

    • Re:What about junk? (Score:4, Informative)

      by khallow (566160) on Thursday June 17, 2010 @10:34AM (#32602084)

      Maybe it's time for thinking about mandatory destruction of satellites at the end of their useful life

      Already done. Everything up there aside from a few nuclear powered Soviet satellites has a plan for coming down (such as stuff in LEO which can reenter Earth's atmosphere without much difficulty) or getting boosted to a more remote orbit (such as stuff in geostationary orbit).

      • And what about all those top secret cold war weapons platforms with incredible weapons? What is going to happen to them? I tried buying the control codes from a drunken retired Russian general once, but all I got was the password to his favorite porno sight. Waste of a perfectly good bottle of vodka too...
        • by khallow (566160)
          All taken care of. Nobody will know that stuff exists anymore so nobody can be blamed when something falls down and causes World War III.
    • by LBt1st (709520)

      The same way we always have. We track each one and if something's out of line we move it. Sure we get an occasional dead satellite but I'm pretty sure in 15 years it'll be trivial to deorbit or destroy those.

    • Maybe it's time for thinking about mandatory destruction of satellites at the end of their useful life, instead of trying to make money out of launching things only...

      There's low-orbit sats and geosync sats and a whole range of orbits in between. There's different amounts of propellant involved for moving one versus another. Is it safer to try to deorbit the old sats or push them up into graveyard orbits? Is there any chance of the graveyard orbits filling up or is that crazy talk?

      The shuttle tested a power tether device that drags through the planet's magnetic field. Draw power from the tether and the orbit drops, add power in and the orbit boosts. Maybe something like

    • Maybe it's time for thinking about mandatory destruction of satellites at the end of their useful life, instead of trying to make money out of launching things only...

      Well, the big problem with your plan is that you're over a decade too late to propose/implement it. Debris reduction (I.E. minimizing the amount of stuff jettisoned) has been the standard since the 90's, as has been the requirement for satellite operators to place them in a parking orbit or deorbit them at end of life.

    • The FCC calls for all US-registered spacecraft to be disposed of at the end of its useful life [highbeam.com]. This means either decay into the atmosphere within a specific amount of time (25 years, I think) or placement into a "disposal" orbit. For geosynchronous spacecraft, that disposal orbit is one slightly higher, getting it out of the way of operational spacecraft.
      • by Teancum (67324)

        What in the blazes is the FCC doing by regulating that sort of mess? The FAA, yeah, I could see them having regulatory oversight over spacecraft design and requirements for deorbiting put into mission requirements, but the FCC? That is about as silly as NOAA requiring private citizens to register when they want to take a picture of the Earth from space.

        I knew space law was rather mucked up, but this is borderline insanity.

        • Likely the FCC because the vast majority of commercial spacecraft are communications spacecraft. That means the FCC already regulates power/frequency allocation for ground and inter-spacecraft communication for those spacecraft.
          • by Teancum (67324)

            It certainly seems within mission scope to regulate broadcast frequencies and to regulate equipment that may interfere with others who are trying to broadcast on those frequencies (such as how the FCC has regulatory authority over computer manufacturing equipment). Even there, however, the scope of their activity is strictly to make sure that such equipment minimizes such interference to within "reasonable" technical parameters.

            This sounds more like there was a regulatory void, and because the FAA simply r

    • by Dunbal (464142) *

      Maybe it's time for thinking about mandatory destruction of satellites at the end of their useful life, instead of trying to make money out of launching things only...

            And since you are the one proposing this, I recommend the satellites de-orbit and land on your house.

  • Calling Iridium a "commercial launch" is a bit of a stretch. Iridium failed as a commercial venture and the company that runs it now appears to be a transparent pawn of the DoD.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by 'Aikanaka (581446)
      You're full of shit. If that were true the DoD wouldn't have to sign multi-million dollar contracts with Iridium for upkeep and airtime. See http://www.defense.gov/releases/release.aspx?releaseid=2769 [defense.gov], http://www.spacedaily.com/news/iridium-03a.html [spacedaily.com], http://investor.iridium.com/releasedetail.cfm?releaseid=412313 [iridium.com], http://www.defense.gov/contracts/contract.aspx?contractid=3235 [defense.gov], etc.
      • I would venture they operate little differently than any other DoD contractor such as Boeing, Lockheed, etc.. DoD is perfectly happy paying whatever their contractors ask so long as the wrong politician doesn't catch wind of it. It would be quite difficult to find any competitively bid DoD contract that doesn't have significant and excessive cost overruns.
        • by 'Aikanaka (581446)
          You're full of shit too.

          Take a look at Iridium's 10-Q filing [businessweek.com] where they state that one of the challenges and uncertainties is related to their "ability to maintain ... relationship with U.S. government customers, particularly the DoD."

          There is an entire paragraph devoted to their Government Services Revenues:

          "Government services revenue increased by 3.0% to $19.0 million for the three months ended March 31, 2010 from $18.5 million for the three months ended March 31, 2009, due to voice subscriber growth

      • I already answered this question in a previous thread, so I will repost it here:

        Yeah, funny how it gets a lot easier to run the business when Motorola assumes the 5 billion of debt and sells it to you for $25 million. The success of Iridium Satellite LLC is subsidized by the ashes of the original company.

        Proper management made the difference after the sale removed the debt, but even if the company had been properly managed from the beginning, it still would have folded. Even 300k subscribers is not going to

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