SpaceX will delay the launch attempt of the Falcon 9 rocket until at least Thursday, Dec. 9. At a press conference today, company president Gwynne Shotwell said a final review of closeout photos this morning found some indications of a potential issue on a second stage nozzle. Reports from journalist Robert Pearlman on Twitter said the Falcon 9 had been lowered from the vertical launch position. And Shotwell said if they have to replace the nozzle, the launch would be no earlier than Friday, Dec. 10.
“During an inspection of final closeout photos they determined there were some indications in a weld joint that they wanted to take some additional steps to look at,” said Shotwell, “and they brought the vehicle down to horizontal. I believe it is back up to vertical now.” When asked for details, Shotwell said “porosity and potential cracking in a weld joint.”
There were some weather concerns for the early to mid part of this week, but the weather improves later in the week, so perhaps the delay was going to happen anyway.
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This is the first demonstration launch for NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, with a functional Dragon capsule.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said he thinks they have a 70% chance of successful first flight of the Falcon 9/Dragon capsule.
Shotwell agreed, saying history predicts SpaceX will likely have a substantial issue to deal with in this test flight.
“Given we got Falcon 9 to orbit on our first test flight, I’d say 70% for this flight, too,” she said.
At the press conference, NASA’s Phil McAlister, from the Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation, provided some insight into NASA’s thinking on if there were to be substantial problems with any of the COTS test flights. “We expect anomalies and the purpose of a test flight is to find the problems,” he said. “We won’t know until the end of the program if we’ve been completely successful, but to date this has been remarkably successful. Even if we have a bad day on this flight, for example, we expect to move forward. It is not a condition that every test flights be successful. We are committed to learn from each flight. But we would certainly like to have a a successful flight. So far we are on very good track and we will learn a lot from this test flight and move forward regardless of the outcome.”
The key milestones for this flight are a successful launch, separation of the Dragon vehicle from the rocket and successful reentry of Dragon.
No matter the outcome of this flight, SpaceX plans on having next Dragon flight ready by late spring/early summer 2011.
For the future, McAlister also said that he believe competition is very important, and that NASA would like to have at least 2 cargo service companies. “We would like to have routine, cost effective cargo services to LEO by 2020.”
Shotwell said it would be at least two and a half to three years after the cargo program is initiated is the first chance for astronauts to be ferried on board the Dragon capsule.