While a Dragon cargo spacecraft flew safely on its way to the International Space Station in October 2012, executives at Orbcomm Inc. faced "an Apollo 13 moment."
Their prototype communications satellite had shared a ride with the Dragon on SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, which lost one of its nine main engines on the way up.
NASA rules governing the flight and space station safety prevented the rocket's upper stage engine from firing after the Dragon departed, forcing the satellite to be dropped in a low orbit.
Orbcomm CEO Marc Eisenberg received a text with the bad news minutes after watching the launch from Kennedy Space Center.
"At that point, all eyes were focused on trying to find a way to save the satellite," he said. "It was like an Apollo 13 moment, where you take everything that you've got on board that spacecraft and try to raise it to a higher altitude."
The satellite survived about 50 hours before succumbing to gravity, long enough to complete some important tests that helped set the stage for today's 6:08 p.m. launch of six satellites from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on an upgraded Falcon 9.
Weather could pose a challenge, with only a 30 percent chance of acceptable conditions at Launch Complex 40 during a window extending to 7:01 p.m.
The launch is important for Orbcomm, which is trying to deploy a new commercial satellite constellation, and for SpaceX, which is trying to increase its launch rate and continue efforts to recover and reuse rocket boosters.
It's the first of two missions scheduled this year to deploy 17 second-generation satellites for Orbcomm, a publicly traded New Jersey company whose "machine-to-machine" networks provide information on heavy equipment and goods moved around the globe by road, rail and sea.
The technology helps Wal-Mart track the location of trucks, Caterpillar monitor wear and tear on construction equipment and Tropicana know if refrigerated rail containers are keeping orange juice properly cooled.
Weighing 380 pounds and flying about 500 miles up, each Orbcomm Generation 2 (OG2) satellite will offer bigger message capacity and higher speeds than the company's entire first-generation fleet of 25 aging satellites.
"There's so much more functionality in these spacecraft and there's such a much larger business opportunity," said Eisenberg. "Not only are we excited to get it launched, but so is our customer base."
The first six satellites will fill a coverage gap in Orbcomm's existing service.
The spacecraft are positioned on two rings atop the rocket that will separate and begin dispensing the satellites 15 minutes after liftoff. Five of the satellites will orbit in one plane and one will drift to another, practicing maneuvers that will be repeated during the next launch of 11 satellites.
Despite Orbcomm's adventure during the prototype's 2012 flight on a less powerful Falcon 9, Eisenberg praised SpaceX.
The upcoming launches make good on a $46.7 million deal Orbcomm inked in 2009, when it became SpaceX's first commercial launch customer.
Multiple launches were planned on smaller Falcon 1 rockets that SpaceX later discontinued.
Now Orbcomm is getting two Falcon 9 launches for less than the listed $61.2 million price of one.
"Orbcomm arguably got the best launch deal in history," said Chris Quilty, senior vice president for equity research at Raymond James & Assoc. in St. Petersburg.
With the rocket providing more power than needed to deliver the small satellites to a low orbit, SpaceX will again try to land the rocket's first-stage booster softly in the Atlantic Ocean and then recover it.
That's an early step toward developing a reusable rocket that SpaceX believes would dramatically lower launch costs and revolutionize the industry, though competitors disagree.
SpaceX achieved what CEO Elon Musk called "a really huge milestone" after its most recent launch in April, when it guided the Falcon 9 booster from hypersonic speed back to a controlled, soft touchdown in the ocean — a first for a liquid-fueled orbital rocket.
But stormy conditions kept boats from reaching the splashdown area for two days and ultimately destroyed the rocket stage.
"It was somewhat of a huge day, because we've been trying to do this at SpaceX for a long time," Musk said after the launch. "It's been 12 years and we finally did it. Now we've just got to bring it back home in one piece."
Improving the odds this time, SpaceX has deployed bigger boats and the stage shouldn't "land" as far out at sea.
If successful recovering a booster intact from the water, Musk hopes to fly one back to a Cape Canaveral landing site as soon as this year.
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Rocket: SpaceX Falcon 9
Mission: Six Orbcomm Generation 2 (OG2) satellites
Launch time: 6:08 p.m.
Launch window: 6:08 p.m. to 7:01 p.m.
Launch Complex: 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station
Weather: 30 percent "go"
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