Main Engine Cut Off

SpaceX’s First Dedicated Starlink Launch Set for May

Michael Baylor, for NASASpaceflight:

Additionally, SpaceX recently filed for the FCC licenses needed to support a Falcon 9 launch from SLC-40 and a recovery on OCISLY. The droneship will be positioned about 600 kilometers downrange to the northeast. Interestingly, there is not a SpaceX customer on the near-term manifest with a payload that would require such a trajectory. now understands that this is the first dedicated flight for SpaceX’s proposed low earth orbit internet constellation called Starlink.

The downrange distance for landing suggests that the launch will carry quite a payload.

Stark Contrast Between NASA Directorates Put On Display

This latest cost estimate is $8.3M above the cost trigger set in January 2019 and $16M above the original cost trigger set in February 2017. Altogether this represents a cost approximately three times the cost estimate presented in the original ICEMAG proposal.

The level of cost growth on ICEMAG is not acceptable, and NASA considers the investigation to possess significant potential for additional cost growth. As a result, I decided to terminate the ICEMAG investigation.

Jeff Foust, for SpaceNews, on an exchange between Jody Singer, director of NASA Marshall, and Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama:

“As chairman of the appropriations committee, I have more than a passing interest in what NASA does. And I have a little parochial interest, too, in what they do in Huntsville, Alabama,” where Marshall is based, he said. “Jody, you keep doing what you’re doing. We’ll keep funding you.”

Maxar Keeps SSL, Lays Off 4%

Caleb Henry, for SpaceNews, with an extensive update on Maxar’s rough patch:

Maxar Technologies, which will lay off more than 200 people as it seeks to return to profitability, says the struggling satellite division it decided to keep will need to bring in roughly $500 million this year to break even.

Executives of Westminster, Colorado-based Maxar said they can keep the doors open at Space Systems Loral in Palo Alto, California, if it can win one to two geostationary satellite orders annually.

If you’re interested in Maxar and SSL, read Caleb’s article.

Thanks to February Patrons

Very special thanks to the 261 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off on Patreon for the month of February. MECO is entirely listener- and reader-supported, so your support keeps this blog and podcast going, growing, and improving, and most importantly, it keeps it independent.

And a huge thanks to the 36 executive producers of Main Engine Cut Off: Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd, the Everyday Astronaut, Frank, Rui, and six anonymous executive producers. I could not do this without your support, and I am extremely grateful for it.

There are some great perks for those supporting on Patreon, too. At $3 a month, you get access to the MECO Headlines podcast feed—every Friday, I run through the headlines of the week and discuss the stories that didn’t make it into the main show. And at $5 a month, you’ll get advance notice of guest appearances with the ability to contribute questions and topics to the show, and you get access to the Off-Nominal Discord—a place to hang out and discuss all things space.

If you want to get in on some of those perks, or if you’re getting some value out of what I do here and just want to send a little value back to help support Main Engine Cut Off, head over to Patreon and do it there.

There are other ways to help support, too: head over to the shop and buy yourself a shirt or a pair of Rocket Socks, tell a friend, or post a link to something I’m writing or talking about on Twitter or in your favorite subreddit. Spreading the word is an immense help to an independent creator like myself.

Canada Commits to Lunar Gateway, Canadarm3

David Pugliese, for SpaceNews:

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the announcement Wednesday that Canada would be partnering with NASA and spending 2 billion Canadian dollars ($1.4 billion) over 24 years on the Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway program, a human-tended facility in orbit around the moon, as well as other space programs.

We all knew Canada would contribute Canadarm3 to the Gateway, but it is politically important for NASA to have this stated commitment.

Unfortunately, Canadarm2 and the ISS will be operating until 2030, sucking up most of the time, money, and attention.

Senate Bill Introduced for ISS Extension to 2030, Human Space Settlement Amendment

Jeff Foust, for SpaceNews:

Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.) introduced the Advancing Human Spaceflight Act Feb. 27, with its central provision authorizing an extension of operations of the ISS from 2024 to 2030.

Perhaps the most forward-looking portion of the bill would amend the National Aeronautics and Space Act to make human space settlement a national goal, inserting language declaring that “human space settlement and a thriving space economy will enhance the general welfare of the United States.”

The latter will not happen until the former is ended.

I am very supportive of the human space settlement amendment, but 11 more years of ISS makes me woozy.

Air Force Awards EELV Phase-1A-6 Contracts

Big news from the Air Force, with 3 launch contracts going to each provider for the 2021–22 timeframe:

United Launch Services, Centennial, Colorado, has been awarded a $441,761,778 firm-fixed-price contract, for launch services to deliver the SILENTBARKER, SBIRS GEO-5, and SBIRS GEO-6 missions to their intended orbits.  This launch service contract will include launch vehicle production, mission integration, mission launch operations/spaceflight worthiness, and mission unique activities for SILENTBARKER and SBIRS GEO-5, with an option for an additional SBIRS GEO-6 launch service. … Fiscal 2018 and 2019 space procurement funds in the amount of $308,550,970 will be obligated at the time of award.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., Hawthorne, California, has been awarded a $297,000,000 firm-fixed-price contract, for launch services to deliver the NROL-87, NROL-85, and AFSPC-44 missions to their intended orbits.

First some thoughts on the price assumptions we can make, before I dive into some general thoughts.


For ULA, the SBIRS GEO-5 and -6 flights are likely on Atlas V 411. The first three SBIRS GEO launches were on 401, but the Air Force took the option of using a 411 last year for improved performance, and I expect the same here.

Given that the GEO-6 contract is an option, the funds are not obligated yet, so we can do some math with the numbers given and determine that an Atlas V 411 flight for the Air Force is $133 million. SILENTBARKER is likely on an Atlas V 541 (or even 551) and is the remaining $175 million.

On the SpaceX side, the best bet we can make is that AFSPC-44 is a Falcon Heavy flight, and the two NRO missions are on Falcon 9. Strangely enough, in SpaceX’s statement on the awards, they didn’t list AFSPC-44 in the Falcon Heavy manifest, but I’m assuming that was a case of a bad cut-and-paste job of boilerplate copy that hadn’t been updated yet, since Falcon 9 would likely not be able to fly that mission.

All that said, based on recent Falcon 9 government contracts, we can assume about $90 million per flight, which leaves the Falcon Heavy flight at about $117 million.

General Thoughts

Overall, this round wasn’t too surprising, and that has to be music to SpaceX’s ears.

On the ULA side, Atlas V has flown 4 SBIRS GEO missions already, so going that way for -5 and -6 is not surprising and is a good idea.

On the SpaceX side, the fact that they can lock up two NRO flights and a direct-to-GEO Air Force flight with a good price margin between themselves and ULA is a great sign for their future manifest. The fact that Falcon Heavy has a growing manifest and nearly half of it is filled with Air Force missions is major validation. The fact that there is little outrage when they’re awarded missions like these speaks volumes to their track record of late.

Much as we all think of SpaceX as a scrappy startup, they’re an established launch provider now, and are heading into the phase where they play defense against new entrants.