SpaceX: The Falcon is Dead, Long Live the Falcon?

SpaceX has frozen the production of the Falcon 1 rocket due to a softening in the small satellite launch market. But it's larger sibling, the Falcon 9, is seeing a boom in popularity.

Like all monarchs, their reign eventually comes to an end, only to be acceded by a younger king or queen. And it would appear that the Falcon 1 rocket - the Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) trail-blazing small satellite launch system - has been superseded by demand for its larger sibling: the Falcon 9.

On Thursday, Aviation Week reported that SpaceX was suspending the production of the Falcon 1 vehicle amidst the softening of the small-satellite launch market.

"We haven't abandoned it (Falcon 1), but we are looking to address the market in a more cost-effective way," said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell. "We were really hoping the small-sat market would be really robust. However, with Falcon 1 we sold very few vehicles through 2010."

This isn't a downturn for SpaceX as orders for the company's Falcon 9 have been increasing. $3 billion in launch contracts have been booked through 2017, and 16 new Falcon 9 orders have been placed in the last year alone. Also, with the promise of the Falcon Heavy, it looks like the freezing of Falcon 1 is symptomatic of a re-prioritization rather than a lack of demand.

The fact is that SpaceX is growing, fast. In 2008, shortly after the first successful Falcon 1 launch, I visited the SpaceX Hawthorn (Calif.) headquarters to write a report for Space Lifestyle Magazine ("The New Face of Space Travel," Fall 2008 Edition, page 36, PDF) about the burgeoning rocket-building company. At the time, employees numbered in a few hundred and the only launch facility was based at Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific. Now, SpaceX also has a launchpad at Cape Canaveral, Fla., and another is being prepared at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The number of people employed by SpaceX has just surpassed the 1,500 mark.

Although SpaceX is widely considered to be the leader of space commercialization, other companies are hot on their tail. But for now, the Falcon 1′s production freeze isn't being caused by competition from another company's spaceship, it's caused by an increase in demand for its bigger sibling.

In 2008, Falcon 1 was king. By 2011, Falcon 9 has become new monarch of space commercialization.

Image: The Falcon 9 blasts off from its Florida launch pad. Credit: SpaceX.