71 satellites, 35 customers, 18 nations, two Spaceflight free flyers, one SpaceX Falcon 9 — by the end of this year. Credit: Spaceflight

PARIS — Launch-service aggregator Spaceflight expects to launch 71 satellites for more than 30 customers on a single SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket late this year — the date is holding, so far — in the company’s first purchase of an entire large rocket.

Seattle-based Spaceflight collects smallsat owner demand and then hunts for launch opportunities.

The company already bears the telltale scars of the space industry: A planned 2016 launch of several dozen satellites, as a secondary passenger on a Falcon 9, was cancelled after multiple launcher-related delays. Spaceflight scrambled to find alternative launches for its customers.

Another scar: A Spaceflight-organized launch aboard India’s PSLV rocket in January included four SpaceBEES for startup Swarm Technologies. It turned out that Swarm had not secured U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approval for the launch, despite having given Spaceflight to understand otherwise.

Aside from the debatable reasoning for the FCC’s hesitation — that the SpaceBEES were too small to be tracked by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network, a finding disputed in the industry — the fact is that Spaceflight let slip a regulatory infraction.

It’s a lesson that Spaceflight President Curt Blake says the company has learned perhaps too well. Should a company federating a flight of dozens of satellites for multiple customers be responsible for validating all the regulatory requirements?

This kind of discussion is inevitable in a young industry that’s growing fast and becoming ever-more commercial. While Spaceflight’s SSO-A: Smallsat Express mission with SpaceX has more imaging satellites than communications payloads, the launch is 75% commercial customers.

As the commercial side grows, owners of smallsat fleets will begin to pressure launch-service providers to accept liquidated-damages clauses in their contracts to protect the satellite owners’ business plans.

Blake said he is fine with that, and would wants the segment of the smallsat sector that builds spacecraft larger than cubesats to work at establishing technical standards to smooth launcher integration and, when necessary, last-minute switches between launch vehicles.

Spaceflight President Curt Blake. Credit: Spaceflight

How solid is the October date for the SSO-A mission with SpaceX?

It’s not certain it’s October. We’re saying the middle of the fourth quarter.

So maybe November. But no indication it’s slipping into 2019?

Everything we’re hearing looks good for the fourth quarter.

Was your mission given a lower priority than other SpaceX launches that would have put it behind some other customers on the manifest?

No, I don’t think so. It hasn’t really changed other than how SpaceX has moved us within the manifest. We’re where we should be, according to the different rules that they have. For example, government missions like ISS [International Space Station] resupply and stuff like that sort of takes priority. So I think we’re where we should be.

It’s all been fair and square in your view?

I think so, yeah.

Have U.S. regulators asked for validation that you’re very close to your target orbit after separation from the Falcon 9 before deploying the 71 satellites?

That’s roughly correct, we have a whole methodology that goes around the deployment sequence and when that starts.

Jeff Roberts, Spaceflight SSO-A mission director: We are working with the FCC through the licensing process to define what is acceptable for SSO-A.

With Soyuz and PSLV launches U.S. Air Force’s 18th Space Squadron has had difficulty tracking the payloads because deployment of dozens of satellites occurs in a short period of time, with no identifiers.

We’re always trying to cooperate with them, and we’ve met with them. They understand fully what we’re doing on this mission and what the sequencing is and they’re happy with it.

Jeff Roberts: We are separating our customers over a 6-hour period after launch, with a median time of 5 minutes between separations.  We have also encouraged our customers to contact CSpOC [the Combined Space Operations Center] to coordinate early-orbit catalogue efforts. We have provided CSpOC additional information about the mission to assist them to rapidly identify and catalogue all customers once on orbit.

The 71 satellites on the SSO-A mission will be released from the two free flyers with an average 5-minute interval between each satellite. This allows for easier tracking for space traffic management. Credit: Spaceflight

The two satellite adapters are sent into a destructive atmospheric reentry after the mission?

Jeff Roberts: Yes, via the use of drag sails.

You handle some of your customers’ regulatory and policy interfaces. In the wake of the Swarm SpaceBEEs issue, I suspect the whole smallsat sector has learned lessons.

True enough.

Has the Swarm experience forced you to bullet-proof the regulatory side for future missions?

Absolutely, to the degree you can ever bullet-proof something like that.

If your customers tell you they’re all set on the regulatory side, is it realistic to second-guess them?

In fact we do ask those questions. For the incident in question, the representations we got back from the customer weren’t entirely accurate. So we’ve put in place procedures that I think take care of that kind of situation.

We did this to some degree before. But we’re being very stringent about requesting the actual [regulatory] artifact so we can get proof, and we’re spot checking that as well with the agencies. We can’t spot check everything, but we’re doing our best to one have artifacts and do some spot checking.

We don’t want to become auditors, because that’s a different function than what we at least thought we were doing here.

Quite different.

But having said that, we understand the importance of making sure people have the appropriate license for what they’re going to do. We’re trying to walk that line. We don’t want to become the enforcement arm for these agencies, but we want to be good stewards of Earth orbit and be sure people have the licenses they say they have.

Is there a way for people to circumvent it? There always is, in any kind of situation, the ability for people to commit fraud and do bad things. But we’re doing our best to avoid that.

It’s a matter of degree: Should you force customers to take off their shoes and belts and go through an X-ray before you let them launch?

I’ve talked to other folks that run business with us as well, and it’s like: Where does this stop? How far is far enough? I guess we’ll find out, but we’re doing our best to make sure we’re good stewards.

We always thought that this would be self-regulating. We knew we had to check, we understood that function. But we thought: Why would someone do this? It’s not like they’re not going to get caught and that there won’t be consequences. We thought that with the amount of money it takes to get launched and the amount of money it takes to build a satellite, people wouldn’t take that risk.

Many smallsat launcher and spaceport proposals are popping up. One motivation: To offer satellite owners a launch near where their satellites are rather than hauling to French Guiana, or Kazakhstan, or India, or even California. Does this excite customers?

There are a lot of factors more important than geographical proximity. Price is one. All things being equal, would they be willing to pay a little bit more? Maybe a little bit more, but not a huge amount more.

Really what matters is how reliable the rocket is and how close to hitting schedule its track record is. Those are, by far, the most important things our customers worry about.

If you get a bargain price but the launch is two years late, you’ve lost a lot of time to execute your business plan, you haven’t been able to raise your next series of funding because you don’t have any proof to show your satellite works. There are a lot of bad consequences from not going to close to on time. Everybody’s a little bit late, it’s just part of the business. But that’s a pretty important consideration.

Especially as the number of commercial missions is rising.

And that is the case, and frankly it’s important to the government folks too. Within reason, there’s some play there, and oftentimes the customer wants another couple or three months, just because building a satellite is super hard.

We understand that, and we try to make sure there’s a bit of buffer there for when we think they’ll be ready two years hence with respect to launch timing. But even if the schedule is likely to move out a few months, it’s still good to be a little bit careful on that. I think that is the most important consideration.

Given all the activity on small launchers and spaceports, you’d think developing a sustainable launch-service business was easy, despite what the history shows.

Yeah, it’s super difficult. You have to give incredible credit to the startups that have weathered the ride to get something on orbit and be successful. And to be able to do it with regularity, that’s a real achievement. Those that have done it are going to reap financial rewards for it, for sure.

You’re now an established launch-service customer aggregator. There aren’t many of you. Do you have a responsibility to avoid vehicles that, for whatever reason, you think are unlikely to make it over time, and to focus on those that have sustainable business plans?

It’s our responsibility to present to our customers the range of alternatives and make them aware of the risks inherent in the different launch vehicles. For a customer with only a certain amount of money who says “We need to get on orbit, but this is all we’ve got” — if they want to go on an inaugural flight of an untested vehicle, we’ll still book them on that inaugural flight. But we’ll certainly make them aware of the risks.

I don’t think it’s right for us to be paternalistic. We need to be able to show them the different launch vehicles in our portfolio and to let them make the decision, with us providing all the information we have so they can make an educated choice.

The smallsat sector is growing into an actual business — more commercial satellites and more dedicated launch vehicles for them. Is it at the point where customers can insist on liquidated damages for material launch delays? Or is the industry still too fragile?

If we buy the whole launch vehicle and we’re the primary, I think with all the different launch vehicles, we are entitled to damages for delays, for sure. But as a secondary [customer on a launch], there’s a lot of different inputs. The primary could be late, for example.

I was thinking when you’re the sole or primary customer.

When we buy the whole thing, absolutely, that’s part of the equation.

Having said that, delays fall into different categories. There’s a sort of excusable delay, and an inexcusable delay. That’s the nomenclature in the business, and they have different consequences, depending on where that falls out. It’s a contractual thing and varies a little bit company to company. There’s no across-the-board, easy answer to where that all shakes out and how much free delay people are entitled to. 

But as the industry matures, you should be able to insist on liquidated damages?

Yeah, exactly.

The establishment of cubesat technical standards helped accelerate the sector’s growth. Is the same thing needed for smallsats that are not cubesats?

Any time we can get more standardization, it helps. When we talk to our customers, we provide them information on multiple fairing sizes and what the size their spacecraft can be for several different launch vehicles.

We do that because bad things happen to launch vehicles, and delays happen.

We always tell people the worst case thing for you and your satellite is not that you’re on the launch that blows up or has a huge problem, because then you’re likely insured. The worst thing is if you’re the one after that, because you’re sitting on the ground for a long time waiting for a resolution of what was wrong with the launch vehicle and you’re not executing on your business plan, so you could go out of business waiting for that to happen.

So one of the big things we sell as our value add is an ability to move between launch vehicles given certain parameters. To the degree there’s standardization, it’s much easier to move folks between launch vehicles.

There’s a whole bunch of issues involved. Obviously if you want to move from a U.S. vehicle to an Indian or Russian vehicle, you’ve got to go through the ITAR process to make sure you’re clean there. You know that the FCC filing includes some orbital stuff and what launch vehicle you’re on, so you’ve got to navigate through that.

We help folks maneuver through a lot of things. But fundamentally, the ability to change launch vehicles when problems happen is huge.

It’s also huge on the flip side. If you as a customer encounter unexpected delays and turns out your satellite is not going to be ready on time, it’s really helpful, within certain parameters, to be able to pay a change fee and move to another launch vehicle. Because of the volume we do, we can usually bring somebody else in and basically cover for you, again with the cooperation of the launch vehicle. So standardization is super important. I am completely behind that.

I imagine the Liar’s Poker between launch providers and satellite builders — neither wants to admit to a delay, hoping the other will announce a delay first — also happens in the smallsat sector.

Yeah, that’s totally done, all the time.