The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off Oct. 11 from Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The first stage was previously used on a SpaceX NASA mission to the International Space Station in February — the third time SpaceX has launched a previously flown first stage. The stage subsequently landed on a drone ship in the 18th successful landing of a Falcon 9 first stage. It was the 15th Falcon 9 launch of 2017 for SpaceX, which plans five more before the end of the year. Credit: US Air Force.

TOKYO — SpaceX on Oct. 11 sought to reassure the commercial satellite market that it was not about to retire the Falcon 9 rocket just as the vehicle begins to realize its long-held promise of high-cadence, low-cost launches.

Speaking at the APSCC 2017 conference here, SpaceX Senior Director Tom Ochinero also said the company was nearing the point where its launch prices would be set irrespective of whether a given launch used a previously flown first stage.

Ochinero’s comments came just hours before SpaceX conducted its 15th launch of the year, placing the EchoStar 105/SES-11 telecommunications satellite into geostationary transfer orbit. Fleet operator SES said the 5,200-kilogram, Airbus-built spacecraft was in good health post separation.

For the launch, SpaceX employed a stage that had first flown in February on a cargo-supply mission to the International Space Station. It was the third time has done this.

Ochinero siad SpaceX planned five more Falcon 9 campaigns this year, plus a late-year inaugural flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket.

Here are excerpts from his remarks at APSCC 2017.

Elon Musk’s recent statements about the BFR rocket suggest you’ll be sidelining Falcon vehicles to focus on this larger, multipurpose vehicle. Is that the case?

We’re developing BFR and once that becomes available we will definitely offer to the market for commercial launches, not only for Mars colony purposes. When BFR becomes available we will have a stable of Falcon rockets and we will continue to use those once the BFR is flying.

Our plan is that BFR economics will be superior to the Falcon series of rockets and that there will be a natural market transition toward BFR.

I can see how people might take it that we are going to shut down and transfer. This is not the case. We’ll continue to produce Falcon, then develop BFR and then offer it to the market and see what the market chooses.

But a single product line would offer better eocnomics.

Yes, and in addition BFR is fully reusable. We can recover the second stage, the fairing, everything. So the economics of that will be superior.

With 17 [now 18] successful first-stage landings, you have a fix on what maintenance looks like before they fly again. Do you have a better idea on what this does to the cost of a launch, and eventually the price?

Recording the cost, what we’ve invested to develop reusability is on the order of $1 billion. We have to recover some of that — not fully, because if we tried to do that we’d be talking about 10 years or more. But the economics are not quite that simple.

But as we’ve recovered these and examined the hardware and learned about it, we’re gradually hitting our rapid-reusability goals. Beyond that, our stated goal is to continue to drive down the cost of launching payloads and people.

The EchoStar-105/SES-11 satellite separates from the Falcon 9 upper stage. Credit: SpaceX video capture

As far as near-term price targets I don’t have anything to share. We continue to differentiate [in price] between a flight-proven vehicle [and a new first stage]. But because the market’s acceptance of these flight-proven vehicles has been fantastic, I don’t foresee that type of differentiation lasting.

Our goal has always been to be a launch service. We’ll take your package from here to here on a certain date and it shouldn’t really matter what color the truck is or the number of miles on the engine.

The current [insurance premium] numbers that I have seen is that they don’t differentiate between a previously flown first stage or a stage that hasn’t flown. We want to get away from that kind of service model.

You have two pads in Florida, pus Vandenberg. Is it fair to say that given what you can do from your current locations, you don’t need one in Texas?

Yes, that’s correct. We have demonstrated we can launch at least twice from each of these pads. We’re talking about being able to do at least six launches a month if we wanted to. It is not our intention to do so.

What we have manifested in customer commitments are not bottlenecked by the lack of a fourth launch site. We can manage with the three. Between upgrading our production capability, having the pads — and most importantly, the visibility — between the balance of those three we don’t foresee not being able to meet customer commitments. I am happy to take on more launch commitments right now.

Do you need a new FH if you are transitioning to BFR?

We’re building Falcon Heavy and we are going to fly it this year. The hardware has been through testing and almost everything is at the launch site. At this point we are just waiting to clear out the launch manifest on Pad 39A and to start flying Falcon 9s from Pad 40, which will allow us a little time to convert 39A for Falcon Heavy.

Is it a weeks-long conversion of the pad?

It’s a matter of weeks. The hardware is ready, it’s a matter of a swap. Because Falcon Heavy is such a big vehicle, we cannot really test all 27 engines on the three cores at our Texas launch site, so the idea is to put it up there on 39A and do a lot of testing before we actually lift.

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Peter B. de Selding
Peter B. de Selding

Peter de Selding is a Co-Founder and editor for SpaceIntelReport.com. He started SpaceIntelReport in 2017 after 26 years as the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews where he covered the commercial satellite, launch and the international space businesses. He is widely considered the preeminent reporter in the space industry and is a must read for space executives. Follow Peter @pbdes