SpaceX aims to step up launch rate with next mission for NASA


(Reuters) – A cargo version of the spaceship being developed by privately owned Space Exploration Technologies is slated to launch early Saturday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, the company’s second launch in 13 days.

Quick turnarounds between flights are expected to become routine as SpaceX, as the California-based company is known, adds ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station to its fast-growing launch business.

“We are ramping up for that launch rate, and actually even more than that,” said Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX vice president of mission assurance. “In the future, I anticipate that this will be the norm.”

SpaceX on Tuesday won a $2.6 billion contract to design and fly Dragon passenger ships, with a test flight targeted for 2016. NASA also awarded Boeing a $4.2 billion contract to develop a second space taxi.

The price difference is primarily the cost of the launcher. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets sell for about $61 million; Boeing plans to buy Atlas 5 rockets, which cost about $150 million.

United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, manufactures and sells Atlas 5, which predominantly are used for U.S. military missions.

SpaceX, owned and operated by technology entrepreneur Elon Musk, is gunning for that business as well. A lawsuit is pending in federal court contesting the U.S. Air Force’s latest non-competed award to United Launch Alliance.

SpaceX already flies cargo to the space station for NASA under a $1.6 billion contract and has a backlog of more than 35 commercial satellite and NASA station resupply missions.

Its fourth cargo run to the station is scheduled for launch at 2:15 a.m. (0615 GMT) on Saturday. In addition to food, clothes and science gear for the station’s crew, the Dragon freighter carries an experimental 3-D printer, a science instrument to monitor winds over Earth’s oceans and 20 mice to be used in experiments.