SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell appears to have scrapped her previous strategy of building up expectations in favor of one that manages them. Credit: SpaceX

PARIS — SpaceX now plans an inaugural flight of its Falcon Heavy rocket, with a SpaceX payload and no paying passengers, late this year and to begin commercial flights in early 2018 with an Arabsat telecommunications satellite, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said.

In a June 22 appearance on the space show — http://bit.ly/2saRo0B — Shotwell said launch-pad availability in Florida is one reason the inaugural Falcon Heavy flight has slipped beyond mid-year.

“We should still lift off this year,” Shotwell said of the long-delayed Falcon Heavy’s first launch. In 2018, the company plans to launch the Arabsat 6A telecommunications satellite and the U.S. Air Force STP-2 mission on Falcon Heavy vehicles, she said.

Customer interest in previously flown first stages

Speaking before the successful launch of the Bulgariasat-1 satellite using a previously flown Falcon 9 first stage, Shotwell said “three or four” SpaceX customers slated for flights in the coming months have asked about switching their launches to previously flown first stages.

She did not say whether these customers had asked for earlier launch dates or launch-price discounts in exchange for moving to previously used rocket stages.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is currently flying its Block 3 version, with a series of relatively minor upgrades called Block 4 to be introduced in the coming months. By the end of this year, Shotwell said, the Block 5 version of Falcon 9 should be in service.

It is the Block 5 version that should enable SpaceX to extend the reusability envelop of the rocket’s first stage. The current Falcon 9 first stage is deemed capable of flying a total of 2-3 times.

The Block 5 version, she said, should be able to fly 13 times with new valve sub-assemblies, a revamped octoweb engine thrust configuration and  reworked helium pressurization reservoirs, called Composite Overwrapped Pressure Vessels, or COPVs, which have caused headaches for SpaceX in the past.

The interview is the latest example of the evolution of Shotwell’s public pronouncements about SpaceX’s near-term outlook. Whereas before she spoke as a general planning a campaign, now she sounds like someone actually managing one.

About the company’s long-promised increase in launch rate, she said: “It has been harder than I expected,” especially after the Sept. 1 explosion of a Falcon 9 rocket during preparation of a prelaunch static fire test on the launch pad.

The company was producing six rockets per year three years ago and is now completing more than 20 per year after having throttled back following the Sept. 1 failure.

Satellite broadband project being worked ‘on the side’

As she has in the past, Shotwell sought to lower expectations of any announcements relating to SpaceX’s satellite broadband plan, identified in U.S. regulatory filings as several thousand satellites in low Earth orbit.

SpaceX is now a company of 6,000 people and it is logical that there are pockets of intense effort that Shotwell does not follow regularly. But as president of the company, she is presumed to know if substantial resources are being diverted to a given effort.

If that is the case, SpaceX is not about to embark on a major broadband satellite constellation.

Asked about the status of the satellite project, she suggested anyone interested should look at the company’s public filings at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

“That’s definitely a project that we are working on the side,” Shotwell said of the satellite broadband effort. “It requires a large amount of new technology to be developed. We’ve just got our heads down and we’re working on it.”

Similarly, she said work on SpaceX’s Mars plans are active but that the company has its priorities set on the upgraded Falcon 9 rocket, the crewed version of its Dragon capsule being designed under contract to NASA, and  the Falcon Heavy.

“These are the priorities,” she said.