Updated at 3:30 p.m. EST after Globalstar’s statement.
WASHINGTON — SpaceX completed a flurry of three successful launches in just over 36 hours early June 19, days after an open letter within the company criticizing founder Elon Musk resulted in the layoff of several employees .
The series of launches began June 17 with a Falcon 9 launch from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. The rocket, which lifted off at 12:09 a.m. Eastern Time, placed 53 Starlink satellites into orbit. The booster used for the launch completed its 13th flight with a droneship landing, setting a company record for booster reuse.
The second launch took place at 10:19 a.m. Eastern Time on June 18 from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The Falcon 9 launched the SARah-1 radar imaging satellite, built by Airbus for the German army as a replacement for the existing SAR-Lupe system. SpaceX provided limited launch information, similar to restrictions for classified US launches, but the German military later confirmed payload deployment and successful contact with the four-ton satellite. The booster, which flew two National Reconnaissance Office missions earlier this year, landed at the launch site.
The final, and perhaps most mysterious, launch took place at 12:27 a.m. Eastern Time on June 19 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Space Force Station Cape Canaveral in Florida. The only payload identified during the launch was Globalstar FM15, a spare satellite for low Earth orbit satellite operator Globalstar. This satellite deployed from the upper stage nearly two hours after liftoff.
Several aspects of the mission suggested to observers that Globalstar FM15 was not the launch’s only payload. This included an unusual set of three upper-stage burns and the first-stage droneship landing, even through the Globalstar satellite alone, weighing around 700 kilograms, was small enough to allow landing at the launch site.
SpaceX initially did not provide a video of the payload after the fairing separation, but did after the second burn. These views not only showed the Globalstar satellite, but also what appeared to be a payload adapter. This could mean that the rocket was also carrying one or more deployed payloads after the first upper stage burn. It could also mean, however, that the launch was originally intended to carry additional payloads but launched without them.
Globalstar provided few details about its own satellite on the mission. The company did not announce the launch in advance. In a statement after the release of its quarterly results on May 5, Dave Kagan, chief executive of Globalstar, said the company plans to launch this ground spare “in the coming months” which, along with plans to a new set of satellites ordered earlier in the year, “to ensure continuity of service to all our current and future subscribers and other network users”.
In a June 19 statement, Globalstar said the satellite was performing well after launch. The spacecraft will remain in a lower transfer orbit as an in-orbit spare until it is necessary to replace an existing satellite.
In its quarterly earnings filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission on May 5, the company said the “vast majority” of the costs of preparing for the launch of Globalstar FM15 and the launch itself were paid for by an anonymous customer. . This same customer is also financing almost all of the costs of the 17 new Globalstar satellites ordered from the Canadian company MDA in February.
The launches came days after internal criticism from SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk erupted into public view. An open letter circulated within company networks on June 15 said Musk’s public statements had become an “embarrassment” to some employees, distracting them from their work.
“Elon’s behavior in the public sphere has been a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us, particularly in recent weeks,” the letter read. “As CEO and most prominent spokesperson, Elon is considered the face of SpaceX – every Tweet sent by Elon is a de facto public statement of the company. It is essential to make it clear to our teams and our potential talent pool that its message does not reflect our work, our mission or our values.
The letter, first reported by The Verge, did not include any specific examples of Musk’s behavior, although there is no shortage of such instances. This not only includes controversial tweets, but also a claim published in May that he sexually harassed a flight attendant on a SpaceX private jet in 2016, an account Musk has strongly denied.
The letter called on SpaceX to “publicly address and condemn Elon’s harmful behavior on Twitter” and to “divest from Elon’s personal brand.” He also demanded that the company’s management be held “equally accountable” for resolving workplace issues and better define its “zero tolerance” policies for unacceptable behavior. Company sources, speaking in the background because they are not authorized to speak publicly, said they believe several hundred employees approved the letter before it was removed from the press. company networks.
Neither Musk nor SpaceX publicly responded to the open letter. However, in a memo to company employees on June 16, SpaceX Chairman Gwynne Shotwell said he had terminated “a number of employees” involved in the open letter. The New York Times first reported the layoffs.
Shotwell, in the memo, claimed that “the letter, the solicitations and the general process made employees feel uncomfortable, intimidated and intimidated and/or angry because the letter made them sign something. which did not reflect their point of view”. The release of the letter, she said, was against company policies “and does not show the strong judgment needed to work in this very difficult industry of space transportation.”
Shotwell said the letter was a distraction for the company as it worked on activities that included the three upcoming launches. “We have 3 launches in 37 hours for critical satellites this weekend,” she wrote, along with work on Dragon cargo and crew spacecraft and being “on the cusp” of a Starship orbital launch. “We have too much critical work to do and we don’t need this kind of excessive activism.”