Launches Can Fail: Are You Prepared?

A launch failure is a loss felt by the entire space industry — regardless of vehicle or spacecraft onboard. It’s a stark reminder of the high-risk business we are in and causes us to reflect on a complex technology too easily taken for granted. Perfect mission success records, such as that held by the Arianespace with the esteemed Vega launcher prior to the loss of Flight VV15, become expected and taken for granted. These failures do happen though, in spite of the rigorous mission assurance efforts undertaken by the engineering, manufacturing and quality control teams that enable these missions. 

In the rocket business there simply is extremely little room to recover from the smallest of deviations or error. How your business can plan for and recover from these occurrences is what sets successful businesses apart.

Mitigating your risk of satellite loss by signing up with multiple launchers is one approach. That’s possible if you have many similar spacecraft you intend to fly and can tolerate the loss of a launch and the spacecraft on board. Planet Labs has successfully employed this approach for years. It requires more capital to procure multiple launches, and isn’t practical for single satellites or satellites with highly variable designs launch to launch. It also requires a robust and versatile spacecraft design.

Most spacecraft are not built to withstand the wide range of launch environments across the rockets available today. Combinations of solids, liquids, ground-launched, silo-launched, air-launched, rail-launched and more, further coupled with the array of adapters and mounting configurations employed create a staggering set of design conditions. Spacecraft manufacturers then must typically balance additional mass to stiffen the design, which translates to higher launch cost, versus a lighter design that is perhaps resilient enough to fly aboard a limited subset of rockets. This is further complicated as new rockets enter operations after the spacecraft design is too mature to change. Design engineers must stay current on the payload users guides across multiple launch vehicles that can service their preferred orbits, and the business operators must stay current on the access available on launch vehicle manifests. Spaceflight has developed a Mission Planners’ Guide to address basic, up-front design considerations when juggling these reference sets. We also maintain an online manifest to simplify the scheduling process, but that is mostly useful before a failure. 

When a launch failure occurs, it’s natural to immediately seek out alternatives to try and keep your mission plans on track. When that happens, everyone goes back and reviews their contract terms to see what their options are and casts a net seeking potential options to remanifest. It can feel like a futile exercise, but our industry, unlike the traditional satellite industry with larger conventional satellites, has the advantage of being quite literally: small. Small satellites can more easily move from launch to launch via our rideshare model, unlike bigger satellites.  These options just increase with the expanding lineup of launch vehicles designed to serve the small satellite market.

Having the ability to remanifest from one vehicle to another is paramount. Most launch providers request a significant time to delay a launch after a failure so that they can safely resume flight and be sure their customers are still there to fly with them when they do. Sometimes, that delay period is too long for some missions to endure. Over time, Spaceflight has worked with our launch providers to incorporate more flexible terms into both our contracts and mission architecture designs. In this way, we can remanifest customers between vehicles later in the mission analysis cycle to serve the small satellite community. It took amassing sufficient breadth in a customer base, and diversity in launch vehicle supply, to start offering this capability. 

Because of this, our customers have the ability to remanifest and launch sooner, and our launch providers keep their expected revenue on their mission as we backfill spacecraft. This process requires a heightened level of vigilance over the shifting launch manifests across dozens of vehicles and a deep knowledge of our customers’ launch needs and spacecraft capabilities. It also requires providers to be adaptive and embrace the complexities of rideshare missions. They can leave that messy business to us, and instead focus on their vehicles and launch operations. It’s a win-win for our customers and the smallsat industry.