October 15, 2012
Credit: Credit: AP/Wideworld
Amy Svitak Paris
The success of Space Exploration Technologies' 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: NASA, 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 for NASA did 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.”