On Dec. 1, a press release from SpaceX customer Iridium (NASDAQ:IRDM) raised hopes that SpaceX would resume operations for the first time since one of its rockets blew up on the launchpad in September. Unintentionally jumping the gun, Iridium announced that the first 10 satellites of its next-generation global satellite constellation, Iridium NEXT, would be going up aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Dec. 16, 2016, at 12:36 p.m. PST.
The problem was, although SpaceX believes it has figured out what caused its rocket to malfunction three months ago, it has not yet officially concluded its investigation of the incident nor obtained a license from the Federal Aviation Administration to proceed with the launch. That license must be obtained, and the FAA must sign off on the launch before SpaceX can return to space.
Anticipation, it's making us wait...
So what is the FAA keeping SpaceX waiting for? Actually, it's the other way around. Iridium seemed to be under the impression that SpaceX was go for launch on Dec. 16. However, on Dec. 7, SpaceX itself published an update on its investigation into what it calls the "anomaly."
- "We are finalizing the investigation into our September 1 anomaly..." (I.e., the investigation is not final);
- "... and are working to complete the final steps necessary to safely and reliably return to flight..." (i.e., this is still a work in progress); and
- "This allows for additional time to close-out vehicle preparations and complete extended testing to help ensure the highest possible level of mission assurance prior to launch."
What SpaceX did not say, however, is that the FAA is holding up its launch. A plain reading of the company's own statement shows that SpaceX itself is not convinced it's yet ready to return to space. Convincing the FAA that it's ready is therefore a bridge that SpaceX has not even begun to cross -- and that puts even the company's new hoped-for launch date of "early January" in doubt.
Tired of waiting
This latest hold-up is already having an effect on SpaceX's business. On Thursday, British satcom Inmarsat plc (LSE:ISAT) announced that following the delay in SpaceX's launch schedule, it has decided to switch launch providers for its upcoming S-band satellite payload. Instead of becoming one of the first customers to ride SpaceX's new Falcon Heavy rocket into orbit, as previously planned, the satellite will fly out of French Guiana in "mid-2017" aboard an Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket operated by Airbus (NASDAQOTH:EADSY) subsidiary Arianespace.
The consequences for SpaceX
Inmarsat's defection to Ariane will cost SpaceX a presumed $90 million in much-needed revenue for its struggling launch business. (SpaceX plans to charge about 50% more for launches aboard its new supercharged Falcon Heavy than for its workaday Falcon 9.) The move will also deprive SpaceX of one of its first opportunities to demonstrate the viability of Falcon Heavy, which was supposed to conduct its first launch this year, but now will not see stars before 2017 at the earliest. At the same time, Inmarsat's decision to switch and Ariane's ready ability to accommodate that switch will further burnish the Airbus subsidiary's reputation as one of the world's most reliable launch providers -- at SpaceX's expense.
And yet, things could have been worse for SpaceX.
At the same time that Inmarsat was announcing its shift to Ariane on this mission, the company took pains to emphasize that it is still "looking forward to continuing to work with SpaceX going forward," and still plans to launch another satellite, dubbed Inmarsat-5 F4, aboard a SpaceX rocket sometime in "H1 2017."
The sooner SpaceX gets back to flying, the more likely that is to happen -- and the sooner SpaceX can start pumping revenue back into its business and prove it can still compete with the heavyweights of international space launch.