Science Spacebound First Look

Why Saturday's launch matters so much to SpaceX

The company is hoping the planned launch will set the company's ambitious plans back on track after a devastating loss in September.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk unveils his plans to colonize Mars during the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, on September 27, 2016.
Reuters
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SpaceX has a lot hanging on Saturday's planned launch.

If all goes according to plan, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. will conduct its first launch since a Falcon 9 rocket exploded during prelaunch testing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in September. That accident set back the company's reputation and finances. In the months since, teams have worked to pinpoint the cause of the explosion and to safeguard against a repeat disaster.

SpaceX, as the company is commonly known, had initially planned its first launch after a four-month hiatus for Jan. 8, but poor weather conditions in California forced the company to postpone the launch.

But after months of technological malfunctions, weather delays, and financial pressures, SpaceX plans to launch another of its Falcon 9 rockets Saturday at 9:54 a.m. Pacific time. The rocket is expected to deliver 10 Iridium satellites into low-Earth orbit.

SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, designs and launches rockets and spacecraft with the lofty goal of “enabling people to live on other planets.” The company has three rocket models – the Falcon 9, the Falcon Heavy, and the Dragon – that it currently deploys on contract missions, such as delivering cargo supplied to the International Space Station for NASA. SpaceX is revered for its innovation and daring goals, such as cutting costs with reusable rockets and starting a human colony on Mars in upcoming years. 

“A successful launch tomorrow will be crucial for a company that has some very ambitious plans for the future,” writes the Verge’s Loren Grush.

But explosions and mishaps have not come cheap for SpaceX. A recent report by The Wall Street Journal suggests that an earlier explosion in 2015 cost the company $260 million and a six percent loss in revenue.

The losses began piling up after a one of SpaceX’s self-landing Falcon 9’s exploded after takeoff on June 28, 2015, costing Mr. Musk tens of millions of dollars on top of the $112 million worth of destroyed NASA equipment, according to Space News. The company postponed the next launch until December 2015, when SpaceX successfully landed its first Falcon 9 booster. But during this five-month hiatus, SpaceX missed out on six proposed launches which would have brought in more than $370 million in revenue, Business Insider reports.  

“It’s akin to a fast-growing Florida orange-trucking company having a major accident and not making deliveries for about 6 months,” explains Business Insider’s Dave Mosher. “Faced with that delay, they would either have to delay buying new orange trucks or just take a loss and maintain their truck buying.”

And then the September 2016 explosion occurred at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, which destroyed a $200 million satellite.

But if SpaceX turns around its luck, potentially with Saturday’s launch, the company’s finances could easily reverse. SpaceX tells Business Insider that it has 70 planned launches on the calendar, which could amount to roughly $10 billion in revenue.

“SpaceX still has plenty of launches on its manifest – enough to keep it busy for a few years,” Nick Stockton writes for Wired. “So if this one doesn’t go as planned, the biggest immediate damage will be to the company’s reputation. But hopefully, the only explosion anyone will see on Saturday is the carefully engineered one coming out of the business end of a Falcom 9, sending it safely into orbit.”

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