Three of SpaceX’s largest and most important customers have in some way expressed significant interest in flying missions aboard recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets. Even with respect to the three commercial reuses SpaceX has already accomplished this year, the combined interest of NASA, the US Air Force, and Iridium could well mark a major phase change in the space industry.
According to NASASpaceflight.com, NASA has been exploring reused Falcon 9 hardware for CRS-13, a cargo Dragon mission scheduled for no earlier than December 4th. If NASA finalizes approvals in time, CRS-13 could see SpaceX reuse both the Falcon 9 first stage and the Dragon spacecraft atop it, in many ways reminiscent of SpaceX’s ultimate goal of full reusability. Furthermore, for CRS-13, NASA is focused on launching aboard the same Falcon 9 that flew CRS-11 just four months ago, a pleasant synergy that would figuratively suggest the development of a fleet ownership-type attitude. NASA is by far SpaceX’s largest customer and has been an invaluable source of support and expertise for the company for nearly all of its 15 years of operations.
The week initially began with a Bloomberg interview of US Space Command head General Jay Ramond that can be best described as a resounding affirmation of the Air Force’s interest in reused SpaceX rockets. Never one for subtlety, Gen. Raymond was quoted saying that the USAF would be “absolutely foolish” and “dumb” to not consider flying on reused rockets. While reused hardware will need to be certified separately for Air Force missions, the Raymond suggested that the process of certifying the reusable Falcon 9 had already begun, although he was unable to provide a an estimate for when it might be completed. Ultimately, although the Air Force is laser-focused on reliability over all other traits, Raymond praised SpaceX for its role in introducing price-shrinking competition to the launch market and reiterated his “complete commitment to…reused rocket.
Up next on the docket is Iridium, a satellite communications provider that contracted with SpaceX for the eight missions required to launch its next generation Iridium NEXT constellation. While CEO Matt Desch has openly expressed interest in reuse over the last year and a half, he remained skeptical and maintained that he was effectively waiting for a more amicable discount on reused vehicles before biting the bullet. SpaceX must have made an offer that couldn’t be refused, as Iridium Communications announced in a press release that the NEXT-4 and NEXT-5 missions will both fly atop reused Falcon 9 first stages, beginning with NEXT-4 on December 22nd.
Of crucial importance, Iridium also noted that the premiums paid to their launch insurers would not increase as a result of the adoption of reused hardware. While the change boosters means that the newly-completed Landing Zone at Vandenberg will have to wait until 2018 to host a Falcon 9 recovery, that is a small consolation to pay for yet another major customer warming up to SpaceX’s reusability program.