Smallsat 2016: Shotwell Discusses Launch Plans

Gwynne Shotwell
Gwynne Shotwell

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell spoke at the Small Satellite 2016 Conference in Utah on Tuesday.

Shotwell talked about the importance of fully reusing the Falcon boosters, SpaceX’s Red Dragon mission to Mars, and about how SpaceX could open up Earth orbit and beyond to the smallsat community. She also defended the company’s decision to abandon development of its Falcon 1e small satellite launcher.

Although I wasn’t able to attend this year, I have pulled a summary of her talk off Twitter. Information came from the following Tweeters:

  • C. G. Niederstrasser ‏@RocketScient1st
  • Jeff Foust ‏@jeff_foust
  • David Hurst ‏@OrbitalDave
  • RITSpaceExploration ‏@RITSPEX


Gwynne Shotwell
President, SpaceX

  • Last spoke at Small Satellite Conference in 2008 right after the third consecutive failure of the Falcon 1 launcher
  • Although things looked grim, she assured crowd that SpaceX was going to make it
  • (They made it)

Falcon Rockets & Reuse

  • SpaceX’s most important objective is the recovery and complete reuse of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rocket (including upper stage)
  • Looking at ways of recovering and reusing the second stage
  • Process of reusing second stage might take another 5 years
  • Might refly 2 Falcon 9 boosters this year
  • Will test fire 8 to 10 recovered first stages before reflying any of them
  • A lot of customer interest in flying on a reused booster
  • First stage boosters returning in surprisingly good shape
  • Attempting to fly rockets with airline-type operations
  • “Super hard” to accept failure as SpaceX learned after losing Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule last year
  • Recovery from failure is important
  • Important to focus on how to solve a problem rather than on the difficulty of the challenge

Falcon Heavy

  • Apologized for launch vehicle being so late (about 4 years)
  • Building Falcon was more complicated than they thought
  • Rocket has a lot of extra capacity to accommodate small satellites
  • First Falcon Heavy mission with payload has slipped to the third quarter of 2017

Flying Smallsats

  • There will be many opportunities to fly smallsats aboard Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy
  • SpaceX has an agreement with Spaceflight for four dedicated smallsat flights over the next 5 years
  • Forecast predicting 3,600 smallsats being launched over the next decade could be understated
  • Expects to be able to fly and deploy smallsats on upcoming Red Dragon mission to land Dragon capsule on Mars
  • SpaceX will help open up the moon and Mars to smallsats
  • SpaceX will be happy to fly missions to the moon and cis-lunar space, but the company’s focus is on Mars

Red Dragon

  • Red Dragon spacecraft will have space in its trunk for smallsats to be deployed on the voyage to Mars
  • Spacecraft’s capsule will have space for payloads destined for Mars’ surface
  • Red Dragon and subsequent missions to Mars will open up space beyond Earth orbit to smallsat community

Human Mars Missions

  • Shipped first Raptor engine for the Mars Colonial Transporter to Texas test site on Monday night
  • Nuclear in-space propulsion is promising, but a lot of development work is required
  • SpaceX is examining at in-space electric propulsion
  • SpaceX is not studying radiation and other human factors for Mars missions
  • Other organizations are studying the long-term effects on humans
  • To make human settlement of Mars feasible, need to get hardware back to Earth
  • The return trip to Earth will be free because of need to get hardware back
    Mining fuel for trip back to Earth will be most difficult part of sending humans to Mars
  • Only 5 or 10 percent of the audience raised hands when Shotwell asked who would be willing to fly on an early Mars mission
  • One audience member couldn’t imaging anyone actually wanting to live on the Red Planet
  • Shotwell replied that people have differing views about living on Mars

Crew Dragon

  • The day they put crew aboard the Dragon will be nerve wracking
  • SpaceX will be ready on that day
  • Projected traffic for planned commercial stations outstrips flights to the International Space Station

Smallsat Constellation

  • SpaceX is working on smallsat technology capable of bringing broadband Internet to world
  • Elon Musk is heading up that effort
  • Shotwell didn’t have a lot to say about it

Falcon 1 Abandonment

  • Decision was made to abandon Falcon 1e smallsat launcher development because SpaceX couldn’t close business case for it
  • Although market conditions have changed, unclear if there is a business case for the Falcon 1e today
  • A lot of players in the small satellite launch business today who believe a market exists
  • Price will be the key to making small satellite launchers work