Los Angeles Business Journal

Getting Off Ground

By James Rufus Koren Monday, May 27, 2013

It’s a steep curve: from crashing rockets to launching successful missions to the International Space Station.

But now that Hawthorne rocket-maker Space Exploration Technologies Inc., or SpaceX, has proved it can make it to space, it’s still got a lot to learn. For starters, how to build and launch many more rockets.

Over the next three years, the company will go from building a handful of rockets each year to more than three a month, and from launching six a year to about two dozen.

What’s more, the company this summer plans to launch an upgraded version of its flagship rocket, the Falcon 9, from a new facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base, northeast of Santa Barbara.

In addition, the company later this year will make its first attempt at launching a satellite into what’s called geostationary transfer orbit, the position for telecommunications satellites. SpaceX needs to show it can do that to build its commercial launch business.

Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president, said all those projects are part of the company’s larger goal. It was founded – really – to send humans to other planets. Satellites and capsules are just practice.

“Everybody at the company understands pretty well that these are critical milestones on our path to Mars,” she said.

Even so, the next few years will be a key test for SpaceX as it hopes to continue to supply the Space Station for NASA and win more launch contracts, including from the military, said Marco Caceres, director of space studies at Fairfax, Va., aerospace consulting firm Teal Group Corp.

“They’re still relatively new – launching four, five, six times a year,” he said. “What’s next for them is to develop a launch rhythm. They need to launch at least once a month.”

SpaceX could reach that milestone next year, with at least 11 launches scheduled so far. The company’s launch manifest lists 16 missions in 2015, though Shotwell said the company could launch as many as 24 that year.

To prepare for more launches, SpaceX has been on a hiring spree. In the past year, it’s grown from 1,800 employees to more than 3,000. Most of the new employees are technicians hired to assemble rocket bodies and engines at the company’s Hawthorne plant.

That workforce is expected to grow 20 percent each year through 2016. By the end of that year, Shotwell plans to be building 40 rockets a year – up from fewer than 12 a year now.

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