5 Launch Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

At Spaceflight, our goal is to make the process of getting our customers’ spacecraft on-orbit as easily and quickly as possible. We have launched more than 400 satellites on more than 40 missions. We’ve learned a thing or two along the way. Some of our customers know the ropes, having launched many satellites. Others are first-time flyers and really need help navigating the process. Regardless, they have one thing in common: their area of expertise is spacecraft development, not launch services. That’s our wheelhouse. 

Here are a few common situations that have tripped up customers in the past. 

  1. Locking in with one launch vehicle. We feel so strongly about this one we built a business around offering flexibility to move between launch vehicles.. Our ability to remanifest customers when there is an unexpected delay is key. We know that delays are just part of the launch business. There are launch vehicle failures, primary satellites that aren’t ready by the launch date, and even global pandemics that can throw schedules out the window. The ability to move off one launch vehicle and onto another can be the difference between success and failure for a business. Also, when customers have contracted directly with one vehicle provider, they report back about the sticker shock when it comes to all the hidden costs of launch that are not covered upfront. (See this post for more on that). In the last few years in particular, we’ve moved multiple customers off of one vehicle and onto another  for a wide range of reasons. It’s a fairly common request. Best advice: Build in flexibility into your launch contracts to allow you to deal with the unexpected.
  2. Waiting too long to book a  launch. We get it. You’ve spent all your time working on your spacecraft and now that you’re rounding the corner, you start to consider your launch options. We’ve heard from customers early in the year who say, “We want to launch by August” and there is just no way to get them on a rocket by then. We’ll give them a few of the soonest available options but those seem too far away, and leave them feeling disappointed. . Often, they’ll not commit to the available launch, thinking that something sooner will come up. After a month or so they will come back to us only to learn  the launches we discussed previously are now fully booked and they will have to wait even longer. Keep in mind, it’s not just available space you have to plan for, but making sure you have time to prepare and submit all deliverables, get test plans reviewed, and secure any necessary waivers while there’s still enough time to make adjustments. Best advice: start the process early. (How early? Give us a call!)
  3. Ignoring the regulatory requirements until the last minute. Often regulatory issues can trip up inexperienced (and even experienced) flyers, as requirements are different from country to country. One of our customers recently nearly missed their launch because they were waiting on a license for their home country that didn’t come until the final 48 hours before their integration slot. Too close for comfort! If the license hadn’t arrived, we would not have been able to integrate their spacecraft and they would have missed the launch. An even worse scenario: a customer is awaiting a license and fails to get it in time AFTER the spacecraft has been integrated. On our historic SSO-A mission, we had more than one customer who failed to get the required FCC license prior to launch, and we had to seal their spacecraft in the dispensers as we cannot deploy them without the proper licensing. They lost both the cost of the spacecraft AND the cost of the launch. Best advice: get on regulations early and ask for help if needed. 
  4. Not having robust ground station plans. Another common mistake we see is customers not arranging for adequate ground station passes for contact opportunities. Getting the satellite on orbit is only part of the process – now you have to make sure you can make contact with it. Some customers build their own ground station, others buy time on available networks. But no matter the method, the more robust your ground station network is, the better odds you have of making contact quickly with your spacecraft. The longer it takes to make contact, the harder it is to locate it.  Best advice: plan on multiple ground station passes with opportunities for contact within the first few hours after deployment of your satellite.
  5. Being overly optimistic about spacecraft development timelines. Building a spacecraft isn’t a quick process. Just as in building a house, add a cushion of time to your expected development timeline. We are happy to get customers booked on the soonest available launch, but if the satellite isn’t ready, they will have to be bumped to a  later launch. Plan for the unexpected. Even if your team hits every milestone, there are just some things that are beyond their control. We saw this a lot during the COVID pandemic. Supply chains slowed to a halt, key personnel couldn’t travel, administrative agencies were working at a much slower pace. Best advice: build in a good margin on your schedule to ensure your spacecraft will be ready by the time your launch date comes up.

Here’s an example of one customer’s journey to launch. The organization approached us in early 2019, expressing a desire to get on orbit by the end of the year. Our team assessed their plan and realized their schedule was overly optimistic. This isn’t a reflection of their team — it was that our experience told us that there was no way to get all the ducks in a row by the end of the year. We worked with them to add in missing elements of their plan and built in extra time for external forces like insurance issues and regulatory requirements. Ultimately, they successfully launched their satellite in June of 2021, a fairly typical timeframe given a start in early 2019. 

These are just a few of the complications we see our customers’ encounter on their path to launch. Many of them are variations on a theme: plan ahead! This is the best way to set yourself up for success. 

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