Updated at 3:30 p.m. Eastern after Globalstar statement.
WASHINGTON — SpaceX completed a wave of three successful launches in just over 36 hours earlier on June 19, days after an open letter within the company criticizing founder Elon Musk led to the firing of several employees.
The launch route began on June 17 with a Falcon 9 launch from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. The rocket, which lifted off at 12:09 p.m. East, launched 53 Starlink satellites into orbit. The booster used for the launch completed its 13th flight with a drone landing, setting a corporate record for booster reuse.
The second launch occurred on June 18 at 10:19 am EST from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California. The Falcon 9 launched the SARah-1 radar imaging satellite, built by Airbus for the German armed forces to replace the existing SAR-Lupe system. SpaceX provided limited information about the launch, similar to restrictions on secret US launches, but the German military later confirmed deployment of the payload and successful contact with the four-ton satellite. The booster, which flew two National Reconnaissance Office missions earlier this year, landed back at launch site.
The final, and perhaps most mysterious, launch took place on June 19 at 12:27 a.m. EST from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The only payload identified at launch was Globalstar FM15, a replacement satellite for satellite operator Globalstar in low Earth orbit. This satellite was deployed from the upper stage almost two hours after launch.
Several aspects of the mission led observers to suspect that Globalstar FM15 was not the only payload on launch. These included an unusual set of three upper stage burns, and the first stage drone landing was small enough, even by the Globalstar satellite alone, to allow a landing back at launch site, weighing about 700 kilograms.
SpaceX did not initially provide video of the payload after 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 also carried one or more payloads that were deployed after the upper stage’s initial burn. But it could also mean that the launch was originally intended to carry additional payloads, but was launched without them.
Globalstar provided few details about its own satellite on the mission. The company did not release the launch in advance. In a statement following the release of quarterly results on May 5, Globalstar Chief Executive Dave Kagan said the company plans to launch this ground spare “in the coming months,” along with plans for a new line of satellites that will were ordered earlier year, “ensuring continuity of service for all our existing and future subscribers, as well as other users of the network.”
In a June 19 statement, Globalstar said the satellite worked well after launch. The spacecraft will remain in orbit in a lower transfer orbit as a replacement until needed to replace an existing satellite.
In filing its quarterly results with the Securities and Exchange Commission on May 5, the company said the “vast majority” of the costs of both preparing the Globalstar FM15 for launch and launch itself were paid for by an unnamed customer. The same customer is also financing almost all of the costs for 17 new satellites that Globalstar ordered from Canadian company MDA in February.
The launches came days after internal criticism of SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk surfaced. An open letter circulated on company networks on June 15 said Musk’s public statements had become an “embarrassment” for some employees and distracted them from their work.
“Elon’s public behavior is a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us, particularly in recent weeks,” the letter said. “As our CEO and most prominent spokesperson, Elon is seen as the face of SpaceX – every tweet Elon sends is a de facto public statement from the company. It is important to make it clear to our teams and our potential talent pool that its messages do not reflect our work, our mission or our values.”
The letter, first reported by The Verge, did not include any concrete examples of Musk’s behavior, although there is arguably no shortage of such instances. This includes not only controversial tweets, but also a claim published in May that he sexually harassed a flight attendant on a SpaceX private jet in 2016, an allegation Musk has staunchly denied.
The letter called on SpaceX to “publicly address and condemn Elon’s harmful Twitter conduct” and “disengage from Elon’s personal brand.” It also called for the company’s leadership to be “equally accountable” for resolving issues in the workplace and better define its “zero tolerance” policy for unacceptable behavior. Company sources, who spoke in the background because they are not authorized to speak publicly, said they believed several hundred employees approved the letter before it was removed from company networks.
Neither Musk nor SpaceX have publicly responded to the open letter. However, in a June 16 memo to company employees, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said she had fired “a number of employees” involved in the open letter. The New York Times first reported the shooting.
Shotwell claimed in the memo that “the letter, the prompts, and the general process made employees feel uncomfortable, intimidated, and bullied and/or annoyed because the letter pressured them to sign something, which does not reflect her views.” Distribution of the letter, she said, is against company policy “and does not demonstrate the strong judgment required to work in this very challenging space transportation sector.”
Shotwell said the letter was a distraction for the company as it worked on activities involving the three upcoming launches. “We have 3 launches in 37 hours for critical satellites this weekend,” she wrote, as well as work on cargo and crew Dragon spacecraft and “on the cusp” of an orbital Starship launch. “We have too much critical work to do and we don’t need that kind of over-the-top activism.”