Integration in Auburn for the SXRS-5 mission is complete! Our payload integration facility, located in Auburn WA (about 30 minutes southwest of Seattle), has been extremely busy the past few weeks. We hosted many customers, ranging from experienced repeat flyers to newcomers, at the facility to integrate their microsats, cubesats and hosted payloads. It is always great to have a full house, and work with each of them to ensure a successful mission.
SXRS-5 is a special mission and represents a few firsts for us — and the industry. It demonstrates how we are pushing the envelope of technology, while building on our heritage flight technology and our legacy of launch from the last decade. This legacy is never more clear than when watching our SXRS-5 mission take shape in the bays of our facility in Auburn. We’ve managed complex missions like this before, and it’s precisely that experience that makes integration proceed smoothly and quickly.
A Closer Look at the SXRS-5 Integration Process
It was very exciting to have not one, but two, OTVs in the cleanroom as we integrated 35 spacecraft on to Sherpa-FX2 and Sherpa-LTE1. However, the star of this show is Sherpa-LTE1, the industry’s first electric propulsion OTV. Sherpa-LTE1 has gone from concept to reality, through testing of the Astro Digital command-and-control system, in a matter of months. Apollo Fusion’s propulsion system which will power Sherpa-LTE1 also went through rigorous testing. This electric propulsion OTV is going to give our customers an unprecedented level of control in reaching the desired orbit for their spacecraft. After the primary missions and deployments of SXRS-5 are complete, we’re going to put Sherpa-LTE through its paces, testing maneuvers for future missions.
Delivering this new offering is possible because we continue to build off proven flight heritage. Both OTVs on SXRS-5 are an iteration of Sherpa-FX1, which flew in January on SpaceX’s Transporter-1 mission. The modular nature of the Sherpa-NG program lets us become more efficient with each launch. For example, we can quickly change adapters or swap out a quadpack for a duopack if necessary. This modular core structure lets us be flexible and adaptive to customer needs, while not having to reinvent the wheel each time.
Our integration facility and our team had a detailed schedule that ensured that our customers’ spacecraft were integrated safely and efficiently. We use an interactive document called an ICD (Interface Control Document) and an IMS (Integrated Master Schedule) as a working, collaborative document to communicate integration requirements and timeframes to our customers.
“We go to great lengths to make the process as smooth as possible for our customers,” says Tony Frego, Senior Director of Mission Management. “One of the most important parts of this is establishing and sharing clear expectations about deliverables and requirements. While some customers can react quickly to changing requirements, others might need more time due to limited resources. It’s our job to make sure nothing falls through the cracks.” CEO of customer Orbit Fab, Daniel Faber, agreed: “Spaceflight laid out the path and made it easy. We didn’t have to hunt for the boxes, we just had to check them.”
When our customers showed up for their designated integration time, our team was ready to help them with anything they needed, including making sure they have access to the right tools, hardware, and extra supplies. Some repeat flyers know the ropes; others will need more help if they run into challenges. The same holds true if we go to their facility or do the integration at the launch site. Our preparation comes from years and years of experience. We know what to plan for and we come prepared to help our customers with whatever arises throughout the process.
Here’s an example of what that looks like in practice, and why this preparation matters: During integration at the launch site at SpaceX’s facility at Vandenberg AFB for our SSO-A mission in 2018, a customer did a “breakover” of their spacecraft for the very first time, and accidentally ripped out 3 inserts. Even though this was the customer’s responsibility, we had the tooling and extra inserts on hand (as they did not bring extras), and easily helped them replace these and got the spacecraft ready for flight. Obviously, they were quite relieved.
The Sherpa OTVs are now loaded with customer payloads (though some will be integrated at the launch site), and carefully packed into their containers for shipping to the launch site. There they will be integrated onto the launch vehicle, the SpaceX Falcon 9. Our customers have a range of comfort and knowledge of this logistical portion of the journey. Some customers are not interested in knowing all the details of what happens after the spacecraft leaves our facility until it is ready for launch; others want to be aware of even the smallest detail of their spacecraft’s journey. We’re happy to provide this information at whatever level of detail they want.
One of the consistent pieces of feedback we receive from customers is how our experienced integration team is key to their success. And it’s never been on display more than during these weeks of final integration. Go SXRS-5 and go Spaceflight!