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London-based satellite operator Inmarsat has told investors that it might be forced to switch a launch contract from the Elon Musk-backed SpaceX possibly to a Russian-backed rocket.
The problem is that SpaceX will have lost at least three months of launch activity since a September 1st explosion and fire on one of its rockets, and there is now a lengthening queue of satellite operators which need to get their precious cargoes into orbit.
SpaceX, on November 4th, said it will return to operations in mid-December. Musk, speaking to news channel CNBC, said: “I think we’ve gotten to the bottom of the problem. It was a really surprising problem. It’s never been encountered before in the history of rocketry. This was the toughest puzzle to solve that we’ve ever had to solve.”
Musk did not say which client would be on the pre-Christmas flight.
Inmarsat’s CEO Rupert Pearce was anticipating the launch of its fourth GlobalXpress satellite this year, but now says that the launch could slip to 2017. Pearce told analysts Nov 3 that Inmarsat already had options in place to switch launchers. However, Pearce expressed strong confidence in SpaceX’s ability to re-commence launches this year. “The problems they have encountered are readily understood and easily fixable,” he told analysts. “We have not lost faith in Falcon or SpaceX. In fact, SpaceX behaved very well and professionally in dealing with adversity here.”
However, that list of waiting clients is extremely long and includes satellites for Bulgaria and Korea, and SES. Other satellites come from Qatar (Es’Hail-2) and Hispasat of Spain.
SpaceX is privately funded by Elon Musk and private investors. It does not make public its accounts. The problem for SpaceX-watchers is that Musk’s other two major ventures, the Tesla electric cars and Solar City, a developer of high-tech solar panels, are reportedly under financial pressure and seeking to merge. Musk owns about 50 per cent of SpaceX, says The Economist news weekly, which adds that Musk’s personal balance sheet is rich in assets, but poor in terms of ready cash. The newspaper says that this year (2016) will see Musk’s portfolio of products burn through $2.3 billion.