The First Mile of Launch is as Important as the Last

Getting to space has always been a challenge for smallsat owners. Not big enough to be able to purchase an entire rocket, they turn to rideshare as a solution – basically hitching a ride on a launch vehicle purchased by the owner of a primary payload. This gets them most of the way there – then came the issue of the “last mile” delivery, and how to get the smallsats to the correct orbit rather than the primary’s orbit of choice. This is being solved by new OTVs and space tugs that would get them that final leg of the journey. Spaceflight pioneered the rideshare model, and continues to revolutionize smallsat delivery with new, innovative OTVs for that last mile delivery

However, brand new entrants to the launch market have been touting their own “last mile” options, they neglect to focus on the critical steps to get TO the “first mile.” 

The “last mile” isn’t the ONLY mile – there is the “first mile” and many miles in between the drawing board and orbit. Spaceflight has built our business on handling the entire life cycle of launch, with  10 years of experience in shepherding customers through every mile of the journey.  Because you can’t get to the last mile if you don’t make it past the first and all the miles in between. Think of it in terms of traveling to a specific destination resort for your vacation: you might take an Uber from the airport to the resort. However, the Uber can’t help you if you missed  your flight in the first place. 

Smallsat customers build their business and spend their resources building an exceptional spacecraft that will fulfill their business mission. This is an enormously complex task, and these organizations rightly focus on satellite design. However, we have too often seen organizations that focus on this to the exclusion of planning for how to get their engineering marvel to the launch pad, much less orbit. A launch plan ideally is created in parallel with satellite design, and includes budgeting for transportation, licensing, insurance, and the launch itself. We’ve had customers stymied by a container solution to pack their spacecraft in, and slowed down by transportation logistics. A common joke in the industry is that if your spacecraft can survive the transportation to the launchpad, it doesn’t need vibration testing. Getting the satellite from workbench to launch site is a mission in and of itself. 

So what is lacking in the discussion of “last mile” delivery of spacecraft? Frankly it’s the experience  needed to successfully get it through all the previous miles, including proper spacecraft handling, and having a team of people who know how to mitigate risks, from physical damage to failed licensing or paperwork. There are often huge challenges during the “early miles” that need a skilled team to work as they arise. For instance, it is rare that a spacecraft gets integrated without additional hardware that must be analyzed on a case-by-case basis.The setting of Motorized Light Bands (MLBs) and deployer doors requires precision and experience, and there must be adequate support and training. A multi-million dollar spacecraft can be damaged or rendered useless by poor integration practices or inexperienced teams. These fundamentals need to be addressed before solving a last mile issue.

While it may be tempting to think of “commoditizing” launch as more players enter the launch market, there is far more to consider besides just the lowest price or the “last mile.” We have made it look easy to launch satellites, but it isn’t. Knowledgeable customers know what is necessary behind the scenes to make it look easy. This can’t be replicated by launch service providers new to the market. Customers looking for a bargain “buy and fly” or “plug and pray” launch plan risk a catastrophic loss of spacecraft or expensive delays by failing to meticulously plan for every mile of the spacecraft’s journey, from drawing board idea to operation.  Just another reason to go with an organization who has deep experience on every step along the way.

Grant Bonin is the Senior Vice President of Business Development at Spaceflight.
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