SpaceX, the plucky little rocket company with unearthly ambition, is trying to become the first American firm in decades to routinely launch large commercial satellites into orbit. And they're about to have their first trial.
If SpaceX succeeds, it's a giant win for all sorts of U.S. technology interests. If they fail, the world is back to relying on the French and the Russians to get their spacecraft in orbit.
It won't be easy. Big commercial satellites are tough to launch. They need to go to geostationary orbit, about 22,000 miles up, and travel fast enough to keep the orbit stable (the International Space Station is only about 250 miles up in low Earth orbit). The advantage is that, to an observer on Earth, the satellite always stays in the same place -- the antenna will always point in the same direction, making it easy use. We use those satellites daily for all kinds of information: Local television stations get feeds from host networks, ATM withdrawals get approval from banks, people on ships or in distant areas use them to speak with one another. To get way out to geostationary orbit, you need a big, expensive rocket, so to get the most bang for their buck the relevant companies make ever-larger, heavier, more capable satellites. The only U.S. company currently capable of such launches is United Launch Alliance (ULA), which has long since priced itself out of the market.
The commercial space business is hugely important. First, rockets use essentially the same technology as missiles (some are, literally, repurposed ICBMs), hence the nervousness surrounding North Korean and Iranian space programs. They are also vital to keeping high-technology business and R&D going, including associated university programs, think tanks, etc. (Think of the U.S. commercial aerospace sector without Boeing.) Finally, space really is the final frontier, and it's generally thought that being better at space launch makes everything related to space that much easier. The government can only afford to support so much of this on its budget; to ease the strain, the United States needs a commercial industry.
For years, SpaceX has been building up to a huge checkpoint: commercial success. Next week's launch (delayed from this week and several times before) will finally determine whether America gets back into the commercial space business, or fails yet again.
How did we get here?
Back in the 1970s, the United States had a virtual monopoly on commercial satellite launches, flying Titan, Atlas, and Delta rockets for satellite communication and television companies. But space launch capabilities are as strategic an industry as ever was, and competition is inevitable. The French Ariane series began launching at the end of that decade, and increasingly capable versions quickly took market share from U.S. companies. Glasnost and the fall of the Soviet Union really opened up the market: The Soviets had some of the best rockets in the world, and the rapacious capitalism that gripped the new Russia quickly turned quasi-military programs into very affordable commercial launch vehicles.
To compete, the United States turned to Lockheed and Boeing for substantial updates of their Atlas and Delta systems. The resulting Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs), the Atlas V and Delta IV, were to compete on the open market, and the U.S. government would reap the benefits of mass production. Demand for commercial satellites was set to explode, brought about by a huge demand for satellite telephone, television, and data services. But that market never really took off; cheap cell phones killed the satphone business, and fiber optic cables kept demand for satellite TV in check. Increasingly strict technology export regulations made information-sharing immensely difficult. A series of sketchy incidents led Boeing and Lockheed to join forces in the form of United Launch Alliance (ULA), ending the realistic idea of domestic competition. With huge cost overruns and without being able to amortize over many launches, the EELVs became increasingly expensive, essentially pricing themselves out of commercial markets altogether, leaving them wholly reliant on a monopoly over U.S. government launches. The U.S. market share for large commercial launches fell from near-monopoly to near-irrelevance.
Enter Elon Musk, the entrepreneur tuned Internet billionaire. Musk started with a simple goal, and the funds to pull it off: Get humans off the Earth and on Mars. Initially he hoped to use Russian rockets, but after long negotiations with the Russians, the costs were still unacceptable. So he began his own company, SpaceX, in 2000. Despite some failures -- virtually inevitable in the industry -- the company has moved at breathtaking speed using the simple philosophy of standardizing everything, building everything in-house, and pushing rocket components out at a furious rate. (For example, the Falcon 9 first stage uses nine engines where similar rockets use one. SpaceX can build an unheard-of 40 engines a year.) The company is deeply involved with reusability, a holy grail with the potential to drastically reduce launch costs. The idea is to build a commercially viable business, and use that money to fund ever-larger and ever-cheaper rockets, culminating in landing crewed missions on Mars.
Tuesday -- or whenever they launch, delays are common -- will be the first big test of that strategy, SpaceX's first launch up to geostationary orbit. SpaceX has around 40 commercial launches on backlog, a big number by any standard, enough to keep them occupied for years. But the company's record is mixed: There is no work of fiction like a future launch schedule, and customers that rely on regularly replacing old satellites will only tolerate so many of the multi-year delays that SpaceX has repeatedly introduced.
While Tuesday's launch will technically be the sixth Falcon 9 launch, it is only the second of the v1.1 rocket, which incorporates such substantial modifications to the fuel tanks and fuel supply systems that it is in many ways a new rocket. The risks -- and thus insurance costs -- of launching on a new rocket are huge, and of course nobody will want to fly on a rocket that doesn't work (as is standard, many SpaceX customers have scheduled backup launches with other companies). It also marks the first launch from the Cape Canaveral, Florida pad, which must work exactly as predicted.
Launching into space is difficult enough that engineers and enthusiasts hold their breath for every single launch, and even the most reliable rockets have had unexpected failures; most space launch companies have lost rockets and destroyed the payloads, some of them repeatedly. Tuesday's launch will be a very risky one, and certainly one to watch.