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Falcon 9 Block 5

Falcon 9 launches Telstar 18 Vantage satellite

Falcon 9 Telstar 18V

PARIS — SpaceX ended a rare extended gap in launch activity Sept. 10 with the successful launch of a communications satellite for Telesat, the second payload for that satellite operator in less than two months.

The Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:45 a.m. Eastern, 77 minutes into a four-hour launch window because of thunderstorms in the vicinity of the launch site that delayed fueling of the rocket.

The Falcon 9’s payload, the Telstar 18 Vantage satellite for Telesat, separated from the upper stage 32 minutes after liftoff, entering its planned geostationary transfer orbit. The first stage made a successful landing on the company’s “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship in the Atlantic Ocean.

The satellite, built by Space Systems Loral, weighed about 7,000 kilograms at liftoff. The high-throughput satellite (HTS) is the second Telesat spacecraft launched by SpaceX this summer, after the July 22 launch of Telstar 19 Vantage on another Falcon 9 Block 5 from the same launch pad.

The satellite will operate from 138 degrees east in GEO, replacing the existing Telstar 18. The spacecraft will provide C-band capacity over the Asia Pacific region. It will also provide Ku-band HTS spots over Indonesia and Malaysia as well as five additional Ku-band beams.

The biggest customer for Telstar 18 Vantage will be another satellite operator, APT Satellite of Hong Kong. That company paid $118.8 million for 57.5 percent of the satellite’s capacity. APT Satellite will rebrand that capacity as Apstar-5C, using it to replace the existing Apstar-5 satellite.

The launch was the 16th of the year for SpaceX, but also the first for the company in more than a month, since the Aug. 7 launch of the Merah Putih satellite for Telkom Indonesia. That gap between launches was the longest since late 2017, when a month and a half passed between Falcon 9 launches of Koreasat 5A and a Dragon cargo resupply mission.

SpaceX’s launch schedule for the rest of the year is backloaded, with only one launch scheduled through the beginning of November. However, several missions are currently planned for the final two months of the year, including the final launch of 10 Iridium Next satellites, an uncrewed demonstration of the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft and the first GPS 3 satellite. The Falcon Heavy could also make its second launch before the end of the year, either carrying the Arabsat-6A communications satellite or the Space Test Program 2 payload for the U.S. Air Force.

SpaceNews.com

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SpaceX proposing expansion of Florida launch processing facilities

An illustration of a hangar that would be used for refurbishing and storing boosters and payload fairings at a new SpaceX facility proposed for development at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — SpaceX plans to significantly expand its footprint at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, a sign that its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets will play a key role for the company for years to come even as it develops a more powerful vehicle.

A draft environmental assessment by NASA, dated April 11 but only recently released, discusses a proposal by SpaceX to develop facilities that would include a booster processing hangar and launch control center on 67 acres of KSC property. News of the plan was first reported by Florida Today.

The facility, located just off State Road 3, the main north-south road at the center, southwest of Launch Complex (LC) 39, would support a much higher launch rate of Falcon rockets, including processing of landed booster stages and recovered payload fairings for reuse.

“This action is needed in order to increase the effective and cost efficient operation of space flight by providing Space X [sic] with facilities to support staff in planning, processing, and operating launches as part of their current returnable, re-usable space vehicles program (Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy),” the environmental assessment document states.

“The Proposed Action is necessary to support the growing Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch manifest at LC-39A and LC-40,” the two launch pads SpaceX currently uses at Cape Canaveral, according to the document. That includes up to 10 launches a year of the Falcon Heavy rocket, which made its first and, to date, only launch in February. The document doesn’t mention how many Falcon 9 launches are expected, but the document anticipates up to 54 landings a year of the Falcon 9 first stage, either at Cape Canaveral or on a drone ship at sea.

The centerpiece of the facility would be a new control center. “The launch control center is envisioned to be world-class, architecturally distinctive, and equipped for satellite, cargo, and crew missions,” it states. Illustrations of the center include a tower up to 90 meters tall, along with other facilities to handle launch and landing operations and related activities.

The facility would also include a processing and storage facility for landed boosters and recovered payload fairings. That facility would cover more than 12,000 square meters, with about two-thirds of it for booster processing and the rest for fairing processing.

Other aspects of the site mentioned in the document include a “rocket garden” of Falcon rockets and Dragon spacecraft on display, a security office and a utilities yard. Much of the property would be set aside for future, unspecified use.

The document doesn’t include schedules for building the facilities, or their estimated cost. The assessment concluded that building the facilities “would not likely cause any significant cumulative impacts” to the environment in and around the center.

Notably absent from the environment assessment is any discussion of SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), the giant two-stage fully reusable launch vehicle the company is developing. The document’s discussion of SpaceX launch plans from Cape Canaveral, and the facilities planned to support them, is limited to the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.

During a teleconference with reporters in May prior to the first launch of the Block 5 variant of the Falcon 9, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said he estimated that the new version of the Falcon 9, designed for repeated reuse, would fly at least 300 times before being retired in favor of the BFR. SpaceX plans to build between 30 and 50 Block 5 first stages to support those launches.

While SpaceX illustrations of the BFR have shown it launching from LC-39A at KSC, Musk said in that call that the BFR would fly, at least initially, out of the company’s launch site under development near Brownsville, Texas. The company broke ground on the Texas site in September 2014, with initial plans to use it for additional Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches.

“Our South Texas launch site will be dedicated to BFR because we can get enough capacity with two launch complexes at Cape Canaveral and one at Vandenberg [Air Force Base in California] to handle all of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy missions,” he said in the call.

The planned expansion of SpaceX facilities was warmly received by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) In a statement June 8, he credited language in the 2017 NASA authorization act that extended a provision in federal law allowing the agency to lease property. That provision was set to expire at the end of 2017 prior to the bill’s enactment in March 2017.

“Thanks to the NASA bill we passed last year to allow commercial space companies to expand their activities on NASA properties, SpaceX is now building a major new facility at KSC that will bring more jobs and provide yet another boost to the local economy,” Nelson said.

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SpaceX launches SES-12 on “hybrid” Falcon 9

A SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off June 4 with the SES-12 telecom satellite. Credit: SpaceX webcast

WASHINGTON — SpaceX launched the all-electric SES-12 telecom satellite June 4 on a Falcon 9 rocket that combined two generations of the rocket.

Featuring a pre-flown Block 4 first stage and the new Block 5 upper stage, the Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base at 12:45 a.m. Eastern.

The 5.4 metric-ton SES-12 satellite separated from the rocket’s upper stage 32 minutes later.

Described by manufacturer Airbus Defence and Space as “the largest and most powerful all-electric satellite ever produced,” SES-12 carries six wide-beam and 72 high-throughput spot-beam transponders for television and connectivity services across the Asia Pacific and the Middle East.

The satellite should have enough fuel to last 22 years in orbit — seven longer than the design life of most geostationary spacecraft — thanks to the effectiveness of the Block 5 upper stage, according to SES Chief Technology Officer Martin Halliwell as quoted in Florida Today.

The Ku- and Ka-band satellite has a digital processor to flexibly allocate capacity according to customer demand — a feature satellite operators are increasingly demanding to prevent geostationary spacecraft from losing their efficacy as markets change over time.

The first-stage booster used today first launched Sept. 7 with the Air Force’s secretive Orbital Test Vehicle 5 spaceplane. SpaceX did not seek to recover the booster or the payload fairings.

SES-12 was originally to launch on an Ariane 5 rocket from European launch provider Arianespace, but SES switched the satellite with one of its SpaceX missions in August. Luxembourg-based SES used that Ariane 5 to instead launch SES-14, a satellite needed on an expedited schedule to replace the malfunctioning NSS-806.

An Arianespace Ariane 5 anomaly eliminated the weeks of schedule saving that SES hoped to obtain by switching missions. A trajectory deviation with Ariane 5 sent SES-14 into the wrong orbit, requiring an estimated four weeks of additional maneuvering with onboard propellant to reach its geostationary slot.

SpaceX’s SES-12 mission was supposed to occur by the end of March but was delayed until June.

SES-12 is a replacement for the 15-and-a-half-year-old NSS-6 satellite. SES plans to co-locate SES-12 with SES-8 at 95 degrees east.

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Musk details Block 5 improvements to Falcon 9

SpaceX’s first Block 5 version of the Falcon 9 rolling out to launch in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk on May 10 went into detail on modifications made to the latest version of the Falcon 9, including redesigning a pressure vessel implicated in the rocket’s 2016 pre-launch explosion.

In a briefing with reporters hours before the scrubbed launch of the first Block 5 Falcon 9 rocket, Musk said the Block 5 is designed to be “the most reliable rocket ever built.”

“That is the design intent,” he said. “I hope fate doesn’t punish me for these words, but that is unequivocally the intent. And I think our most conservative customers would agree with that.”

A last-minute glitch May 10 postponed the Block 5 Falcon 9’s debut launch 24 hours to May 11. SpaceX blamed “a standard ground system auto abort” for halting the countdown 58 seconds before liftoff.  The rocket lifted off successfully May 11 at 4:14 p.m., landed its first stage 11 minutes later and deployed Bangladesh’s first telecom satellite, Bangabandhu-1, to geostationary transfer orbit just under 34 minutes later. 

Lessons from 2016

Musk said SpaceX put great effort into creating extremely reliable COPVs, or composite overwrapped pressure vessels, used to store helium to pressurize the propellant tanks in the launcher’s second stage. In September 2016, a Falcon 9 exploded during preparations for a static fire test and destroyed a telecom satellite for Israeli fleet operator Spacecom.

SpaceX traced the cause to liquid oxygen in the upper stage tank that got trapped between the COPV overwrap and liner and ignited either from friction or other mechanisms. SpaceX has since worked to redesign those pressure vessels in cooperation with NASA in order to address the agency’s concerns about using that design on later Falcon 9 commercial crew launches.

“This is by far the most advanced pressure vessel ever developed by humanity,” Musk said. “It’s nuts. I’ve personally gone over the design; I can’t count how many times. The top engineering minds at SpaceX have agonized over this … I think we are in a good situation.”

Musk said the COPVs now have a burst pressure “more than twice what they are actually loaded to on the pad.” SpaceX has a contingency design that would involve switching from high-strength carbon fiber with an aluminum liner to the superalloy Inconel, but that is “unlikely to be necessary,” Musk said.

New and improved

While block numbering would suggest this is the fifth iteration of the Falcon 9, Musk said the Block 5 “is arguably Falcon 9’s version 6” based on how improvements have been made over time.

“The word ‘block’ is a bit strange. We kind of adopted it from the Russians,” he said.

Musk said the each of the nine Merlin engines used to power the Falcon 9’s first stage now have an 8 percent increase in thrust at sea level to 190,000 pounds-force. The single vacuum-optimized Merlin engine on Falcon 9’s second stage has a 5 percent thrust increase to 220,000 pounds-force, he said.

By comparison, the Block 5 Falcon 9 is around twice as powerful as the Falcon 9 that first launched a demonstration resupply mission for NASA in 2010. The Merlin engines on that first version had 95,000 pounds of thrust for each first-stage engine and 92,500 pounds of thrust for the second-stage engine.

The first stage of Block 5 rockets are designed to be far more reusable than previous versions which so far have only flown twice before retirement.

“In principle, we could refly Block 4 probably upwards of 10 times, but with a fair amount of work between each flight,” Musk said. “The key to Block 5 is that it’s designed to do 10 or more flights with no refurbishment between each flight. The only thing that needs to change is to reload propellant and fly again.”

With some refurbishment, a Block 5 first stage should be able to launch 100 times, Musk said.

In addition to greater reusability, SpaceX’s Block 5 Falcon 9 is designed to meet NASA commercial crew requirements and Air Force national security launch criteria. It’s also designed for easier manufacturing.

Musk said the Falcon 9’s octaweb structure, used to support all nine first stage engines and provide compartmentalization in case one or more fails, is now much stronger. The octaweb is made with bolted instead of welded aluminum and has greater thermal protection to prevent melting, he said.

SpaceX put latch mechanisms on the Falcon 9’s landing legs so the vehicle doesn’t have to rely on external clamps for steadying on ocean-platform landings, Musk said.

SpaceX also upgraded the rocket’s avionics, and is keeping the titanium grid fins, he said. The Falcon 9 previously used aluminum fins for steering the Falcon 9 first stage back to Earth, but SpaceX changed those on the Block 3 to titanium after the aluminum fins caught fire during reentry.

Musk said the rocket’s interstage features a hydrophobic thermal protection developed by SpaceX that is highly reusable and doesn’t require paint. Placed between the first and second stages of the rocket, which are painted white, the jet-black carbon fiber interstage harkens back to SpaceX’s first rocket, the Falcon 1.

“Obviously, aesthetics are a minor factor in rocket design, but I still like the fact that we’ve returned for nostalgic reasons to having a black interstage,” Musk said.

Falcon 9 Block 6?

By keeping the Falcon 9 design static, SpaceX can devote more time and effort to its Big Falcon Rocket and Starlink satellite constellation. Though Musk and other SpaceX officials have repeatedly called the Block 5 the final design, Musk hinted that some minor improvements could still be made to the rocket.

SpaceX engineers might squeeze another 2 percent of additional thrust out of the first stage, and another 5 percent out of the second stage as compared to the Block 4, he said. Musk said the rocket could see “minor improvements” for better manufacturability, reflight and reliability “provided that they are supported by our key customers in commercial satellite launch, NASA and the Air Force.”

He emphasized that any further changes would be small.

“There will not be a Block 6,” Musk said. “We intend to stabilize on the Block 5 platform and have no major upgrades.”

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SpaceX launches Bangladeshi satellite on debut Block 5 Falcon 9 mission

The first SpaceX Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket lifts off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A May 11, carrying the Bangabandhu-1 satellite. Credit: Craig Vander Galien

WASHINGTON — SpaceX on May 11 successfully launched its most modern Falcon 9 rocket, delivering Bangabandhu-1, the first Bangladeshi telecom satellite, into geostationary transfer orbit.

The Falcon 9 rocket, known as the Block 5 version, lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base at 4:14 p.m. Eastern. The 3,500-kilogram Bangabandhu-1 satellite separated from the rocket’s upper stage about 34 minutes later.

The launch was a major milestone for both SpaceX and Bangladesh. With the Block 5 Falcon 9, SpaceX envisions launching around 10 times with the same first stage and doing no refurbishment in between. After the tenth launch, refurbishment could prolong the vehicle’s operational life to 100 missions, according to SpaceX. The rocket is the final design of Falcon 9, and features modifications for simpler manufacturing, to meet NASA commercial crew requirements, and to include Air Force requests.

SpaceX landed the first stage approximately 11 minutes after liftoff. In a call with reporters May 10, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said the company will spend a few months disassembling and inspecting this first Block 5 booster before reuse.

“Ironically, we need to take it apart to confirm that it does not need to be taken apart,” Musk said. “This rocket probably won’t refly for probably a couple of months. But by late this year we should be seeing substantial reflight of Block 5 vehicles, probably with Block 5 boosters seeing their third, maybe their fourth reflight.”

For Bangladesh, the launch is the culmination of several years worth of work to operate its own telecom satellite.

Bangladesh had orbital slots from the United Nation’s International Telecommunication Union that it considered too far from Bangladesh to ensure reliable satellite services. After years of seeking better orbital locations, the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (BTRC) hired consulting firm Space Partnership International (SPI) of Bethesda, Maryland in 2012 to guide the nation in obtaining a better slot and through the acquisition of Bangabandhu-1. SPI helped BTRC secure an orbital slot closer to Bangladesh at 119.1 degrees east from the Russian company Intersputnik for $28 million.

BTRC purchased a turnkey contract for Bangabandhu-1 from European satellite manufacturer Thales Alenia Space in 2015 for $248 million that included the construction of ground infrastructure for satellite operations and the provisioning of a launch vehicle. Thales Alenia Space originally planned for Bangabandhu-1 to launch on an Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket, but switched to backup-choice SpaceX at Bangladesh’s request. BTRC wanted to launch the satellite on Dec. 16, 2017, Bangladesh’s Victory Day, and went with SpaceX to try and make the launch coincide with the holiday. SpaceX delays prevented that from happening.

Bangladesh is the latest in a growing number of nations to “put their flag in space” by launching a national satellite. Other recent entrants include Belarus, Laos and Algeria.

Patriotism and international prestige were especially prominent motivations for Bangladesh. The satellite Bangabandhu-1 is named after Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the assassinated founder of Bangladesh. His daughter Sheikh Hasina is Bangladesh’s current prime minister and her son, Sajeeb Wazed, is the nation’s honorary adviser to the prime minister for information and communications technology.

Nationalism as a motivation for new satellites is a concern for commercial operators who worry new entrants will distort markets by disregarding supply and demand.

But Bangladesh’s satellite exists for more than just the sake of having a satellite. The country plans to use Bangabandhu-1 to further the digitization of the nation — the eighth most populous in the world with around 160 million people according to U.S. census estimates — with e-learning television programs and other services to reduce its domestic digital divide. BTRC estimates Bangabandhu-1 will save the country around $14 million currently spent leasing capacity from foreign operators. In an interview with SpaceNews, Wazed said the number is closer to $15 million to $30 million.

Bangabandhu-1 carries 26 Ku-band transponders and 14 C-band transponders, and is designed to operate for at least 15 years in geostationary orbit. In addition to Bangladesh, the satellite’s coverage includes India, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Indonesia and several central Asian countries. SPI helped design the satellite.

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SpaceX targeting 24-hour turnaround in 2019, full reusability still in the works

A Falcon 9 lifts off Feb. 22 with Spain’s PAZ satellite and SpaceX’s two demo Starlink satellites. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — SpaceX has set an ambitious goal for 2019: using the same Falcon 9 booster to conduct two launches in 24 hours.

Such a feat would require more than just the rapid turnaround of Falcon 9’s reusable first-stage booster. It would also require a rapid turnaround of Air Force range support and some speedy payload integration — assuming SpaceX doesn’t want to launch an empty fairing second time around.

But Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and chief executive, has never been shy about setting bold goals.  

“We intend to demonstrate two orbital launches of the same Falcon 9 vehicle within 24 hours no later than next year,” Musk said May 10 during a call with reporters. “That will be, I think, truly remarkable to launch the same orbit-class rocket twice in one day.”

Musk mentioned the goal in the hours leading up to the first launch attempt of the Block 5 Falcon 9, which is designed with a first stage that can launch 10 times without refurbishment. That launch, carrying Bangladesh’s first telecom satellite, Bangabandhu-1, was rescheduled for today after a last-minute glitch scrubbed the countdown with 58 seconds left on the clock.

“Next year is when we intend … [to do] the same-day reflight of the same rocket,” Musk said. “I think that’s really a key milestone.”

The ability to relaunch the same first stage in a single day would help SpaceX bolster its case that a used rocket is more reliable than a new one. SpaceX executives often reference air travel as a model for future launch activity. Musk reiterated that point.

“Would you rather be flying in an aircraft that’s never had a test flight before, or would you rather fly in an aircraft that has flown many times successfully?” he said.

Musk said he thinks customers eventually “will actually prefer to fly on a flight-proven rocket than one that has never flown.”

SpaceX has given discounts to some early customers of Falcon 9 rockets with used first stages to ease their acceptance, particularly among risk-averse satellite operators who might otherwise be reluctant to launch a spacecraft costing $100 million or more on rocket booster already subjected to the rigors of launch and landing.

Musk said SpaceX lowered prices from “about $60 million to about $50 million for a reflown booster,” and expects “to see a steady reduction in prices” going forward. He cautioned though that SpaceX has lots of fixed costs, its future Starlink satellite internet constellation and development of the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) that require revenue from launches, meaning prices can only go so low. Ocean recoveries, which require sending drone ships out to sea for landing Falcon 9 first stages, also cost “a few million dollars,” he said.

Given the extensive modifications made to Block 5, SpaceX will take extra time after the Bangabandhu-1 launch to disassemble and inspect the rocket.

“Ironically, we need to take it apart to confirm that it does not need to be taken apart,” Musk said. “This rocket probably won’t refly for probably a couple of months. But by late this year we should be seeing substantial reflight of Block 5 vehicles, probably with Block 5 boosters seeing their third, maybe their fourth reflight.”

Musk estimated the Falcon 9 Block 5 will make “something on the order of 300 flights,” before retiring. SpaceX plans to succeed the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy with the BFR, and is targeting a cargo mission to Mars with the larger rocket in 2022.

Full Reusability

SpaceX has attempted, so far unsuccessfully, to recover the Falcon 9 payload fairings used to protect satellites on their ascent through the atmosphere. The company has also talked about retrieving the upper stage instead of letting it burn up over the Pacific Ocean.

Musk said SpaceX won’t attempt fairing recovery on the Bangabandhu-1 mission, but is intent on saving the $6 million protective shrouds in the future.

Upper stage recovery is a longer-term goal.

“I’m certain we can achieve reusability of the upper stage, the question is simply what the mass penalty is,” he said. “We don’t want to put too much engineering effort into that relative to BFR, and we obviously will not take any action that creates risk for the ascent phase of the rocket.”

Over the course of this year, SpaceX will gradually add thermal protection to the upper stage to optimize the stage for the return journey to Earth, Musk said. For near-term flights, Musk said the goal will be mainly to gather data such as reentry temperature, altitude and health, likely using Iridium Communication’s satellite constellation to relay the data.

If SpaceX can reuse every part of the Falcon 9, “we would be able to reduce the cost for launch by an order of magnitude,” Musk said. “And then as our launch rate increases, we can further optimize the per-launch costs.”

Musk estimated 60 percent of the Falcon 9’s marginal cost comes from the first stage, 20 percent from the second stage, 10 percent for the fairing, and 10 percent for the everything else associated with the launch. Propellant costs a negligible $300,000 to $400,000, he said.

Musk said it is possible to reduce the marginal costs for a Falcon 9 launch to “down under $5 or $6 million,” in around three years.

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How Bangladesh became SpaceX’s first Block 5 Falcon 9 customer

SpaceX’s first Block 5 version of the Falcon 9 rolling out to launch in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — When it comes to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, the company’s most daring customers have been NASA and satellite fleet operator SES. Now add Bangladesh to that mix.

NASA was SpaceX’s first customer after Falcon 9’s debut flight in 2010, taking its next four consecutive launches for International Space Station resupply missions.

SES of Luxembourg was the first satellite operator to trust  SpaceX with the launch of a multimillion-dollar geostationary communications satellite. Following the success of that 2013 mission (and many others), SES backed SpaceX last year by launching on the first Falcon 9 to use a previously flown first stage.

On Thursday, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) will be the first customer for the Falcon 9 Block 5 — SpaceX’s final and most powerful version of the rocket. The Falcon 9 Block 5 includes upgrades to meet NASA commercial crew requirements and U.S. Defense Department criteria. The Block 5 is designed for 10 or more flights using the same first stage booster; previous versions were only designed to handle two or three flights.

NASA and SES both had and have motivation to take bold bets on SpaceX — NASA to cultivate private sector launch options for near-Earth activities, and SES to drive down prices in the global launch sector with new competition. Tomorrow’s launch of Bangladesh’s 3,500-kilogram Bangabandhu-1 satellite will be SpaceX’s 54th Falcon 9, and marks what the company hopes will be the beginning of a new chapter of accelerated reusability.

So how did Bangladesh become the customer of SpaceX’s next big milestone?

“It honestly just happened,” Sajeeb Wazed, Bangladesh’s honorary adviser to the prime minister for information and communications technology, told SpaceNews. “That was basically SpaceX’s choice and we were fine with that.”

Wazed, who is the son of Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, said BTRC required each bidder angling to build Bangabandhu-1 to also include a first-choice launch vehicle and a backup. The winning bid from Thales Alenia Space listed Arianespace’s Ariane 5 as the default launcher, he said. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 was the runner-up.

Bangladesh deemed schedule certainty as one of its biggest criteria — a factor that would typically play to the advantage of SpaceX rivals. Arianespace, when prevented from launching for five weeks last spring by local protests that blockaded Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana, caught up on three delayed missions in two months, preventing cascading delays on its manifest.

But Arianespace couldn’t guarantee Bangladesh that its satellite would launch Dec. 16, 2017 — Bangladesh’s “National Victory Day” commemorating the surrender of Pakistani forces during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. Ariane 5 rockets typically carry two satellites at a time, a larger satellite in the upper berth and a smaller satellite in the lower berth. Sharing launch vehicles lowers the cost for satellite operators, but requires their schedules to be in sync. Without that synchronization, delays can ensue.

“Because the size of our satellite only fits in the lower berth of Ariane and they couldn’t guarantee us a launch slot by December, we had them switch to the backup,” Wazed said. “SpaceX wanted us to go on the Block 5 and we were OK with that.”

SpaceX obviously did not meet BTRC’s desired launch date, either. While 2018 was the launch provider’s most successful year with 18 missions, much of that was playing catch-up on launches delayed by Falcon 9 production strains and failures in 2015 and 2016.

Wazed said he strove to temper expectations about a Victory Day launch, but to no avail.

“I told everybody that wasn’t realistic, but it’s OK, we will try, you know?”

Bangabandhu-1 is named after Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the assassinated founder of Bangladesh and Wazed’s grandfather. The satellite carries 26 Ku-band transponders and 14 C-band transponders for television and broadband communications services for the nation and surrounding regions.

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