Spaceflight Inc. applauds rocket successes and copes with setbacks

Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle lifts into the sky over New Zealand and sends two BlackSky satellites into orbit. Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. played a supporting role in the mission. (Joseph Baxter Photo via Rocket Lab)

Thanks to its role in handling logistics prior to launch, Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. claim some credit for two successful satellite deployments that took place within 24 hours this week — but it also faces a rift in relations with SpaceX, one of its longtime launch partners.

First about the successes: On Friday, SpaceX launched 40 satellites from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on a Falcon 9 rocket, as part of a mission known as Transporter-4. Spaceflight Inc. took care of the arrangements for flying several of those satellites.

Spaceflight also played a supporting role in today’s launch of a Rocket Lab Electron rocket from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. Two Earth observation satellites were successfully sent into orbit for BlackSky, a Virginia company that was once Spaceflight’s corporate sibling and still has a sizable workforce in Seattle.

The role of Spaceflight Inc. and Seattle’s angle were recognized in Rocket Lab’s launch mission patch, which includes the Space Needle in its design.

“Thanks for another great launch day!” Spaceflight told Rocket Lab in a tweet

In contrast, Spaceflight’s interactions with SpaceX have become less cordial and more complicated in recent months.

Spaceflight’s business model is based on buying excess capacity from launch providers around the world — and it’s been making deals with SpaceX for its rideshare satellite launch since 2015. One of the biggest highlights came in 2018, when Spaceflight Inc. the full capacity on a SpaceX Falcon bought 9 to put 64 satellites into orbit. Spaceflight also played a part in SpaceX’s Transporter-1 and Transporter-2 missions last year.

Then the relationship ran into trouble, due to issues with Spaceflight’s Sherpa transport vehicle.

Sherpa spacecraft are designed to separate from a launch vehicle and place multiple satellites in different orbits. They have been used successfully on multiple SpaceX flights. But during the lead up to the January launch of SpaceX’s Transporter-3, Spaceflight’s Sherpa-LTC1 ran into a problem with its propulsion system and was removed from the mission. As a result, both Spaceflight Inc. scrambling as SpaceX to rearrange their satellite launch schedules.

Spaceflight also planned to fly a Sherpa orbital tug on this week’s Transporter-4 mission, but said SpaceX had been told its Sherpa-FX5 had been taken off the manifest “due to concerns about spacecraft testing levels.” from customers installed on Sherpa.” That caused another struggle.

“Some have speculated that Sherpa failed a vibration test, and it hasn’t,” Jodi Sorensen, Spaceflight’s vice president of marketing, said in a blog post. “The vibration test was 100% successful. No errors were observed with the Sherpa post test.”

The relationship took a further blow when Space News reported that SpaceX sent an email to its satellite rideshare customers stating that “we will no longer be flying or collaborating with Spaceflight Industries following the missions currently manifested.”

Spaceflight president and CEO Curt Blake said he was “surprised and disappointed” by SpaceX’s decision.

“We will continue to work with them on our current missions as planned and hope to work with SpaceX again in the future,” Blake said in Sorensen’s blog post. “We are simultaneously accelerating alternative launch options through our large network of launch providers to meet our customers’ needs, including more Sherpa missions.”

SpaceX has not publicly commented on the split.

In a follow-up statement emailed to GeekWire, Spaceflight said it is moving forward with all of the Falcon 9 missions it currently has on its schedule, including multiple Sherpa missions planned for this year, as well as a GEO Pathfinder mission orbiting the moon. next year.

The company also said it is trying to fix the deeper issues.

“Spaceflight and SpaceX engineering teams will continue to work closely together to ensure a smooth and successful integration and launch experience for customers,” said Spaceflight. “We continue to make efforts on all fronts to address the situation and understand how we can work together in the future.”

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