SpaceX Falcon 9 Blows Up During Launch Pad Test with Israeli Comsat

A SpaceX Falcon 9 apparently explodes at the base of the rocket.   A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sep.t 3, 2016. Credit: CCAFS
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is destroyed during explosion at the pad on Sept. 1, 2016. A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016 of Amos-6 comsat. Credit: CCAFS

BREAKING NEWS- A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and its Israeli commercial satellite payload were completely destroyed this morning, Thursday, September 1, during launch preparations ahead of the scheduled liftoff on Saturday, September 3.

The explosion occurred at approximately 9:07 a.m. this morning at the SpaceX launch facilities at Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, according to a statement from the USAF 45th Space Wing Public Affairs office.

Watch for additional details here and my interview on the BBC as this story is being frequently updated:

There were no injuries reported at this time.

SpaceX was preparing to conduct a routine static fire test of the first stage Merlin 1 D engine when the explosion took place this morning.

SpaceX media relations issued this statement:

“SpaceX can confirm that in preparation for today’s static fire, there was an anomaly on the pad resulting in the loss of the vehicle and its payload. Per standard procedure, the pad was clear and there were no injuries.”

The SpaceX Falcon 9 had been slated for an overnight blastoff on Saturday, September 3 at 3 a.m. from pad 40 with the AMOS-6 telecommunications satellite valued at some $200 million.

SpaceX sells Falcon 9 rockets at a list price of some $60 million.

This would have been the 9th Falcon 9 launch of 2016.

SpaceX Falon 9 rocket explosion
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explosion. Credit: WTTV/Julian Leek

This explosion and the total loss of vehicle and payload will have far reaching consequences for not just SpaceX and the commercial satellite provider, but also NASA, the US military, and every other customer under a launch contact with the aerospace firm.

Here’s my interview with the BBC TV news a short while ago. Note that the cause is under investigation:

SpaceX is also trying to recover and recycle the Falcon 9 first stage.

Indeed as I reported just 2 days ago, SpaceX announce a contract with SES to fly the SES-10 communications satellite on a recycled Falcon 9.

This explosion will set back that effort and force a halt to all SpaceX launches until the root cause is determined.

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Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 prior to launch of SES-9 communications satellite on Mar. 4, 2016 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 prior to launch of SES-9 communications satellite on Mar. 4, 2016 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SES Boldly Goes Where No Firm Has Gone Before, Inks Deal to Fly on 1st SpaceX ‘Flight-Proven’ Booster

First launch of flight-proven Falcon 9 first stage will use CRS-8 booster that delivered Dragon to the International Space Station in April 2016. Credit: SpaceX
First launch of flight-proven Falcon 9 first stage will use CRS-8 booster that delivered Dragon to the International Space Station in April 2016. Credit: SpaceX

CAPE CANAVERAL, FL — The telecommunications giant SES is boldly going where no company has gone before by making history in inking a deal today, Aug. 30, to fly the expensive SES-10 commercial satellite on the first ever launch of a ‘Flight-Proven’ SpaceX booster – that’s been used and recovered.

Luxembourg-based SES and Hawthrone, CA-based SpaceX today jointly announced the agreement to “launch SES-10 on a flight-proven Falcon 9 orbital rocket booster” before the end of this year.

“The satellite, which will be in a geostationary orbit and expand SES’s capabilities across Latin America, is scheduled for launch in Q4 2016. SES-10 will be the first-ever satellite to launch on a SpaceX flight-proven rocket booster,” according to a joint statement.

That first launch of a flight-proven Falcon 9 first stage will use the CRS-8 booster that delivered a SpaceX Dragon to the International Space Station in April 2016. The reflight could happen as soon as October 2016.

Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moved by crane from drone ship to an upright storage cradle on land at Port Canaveral,  Florida on April 12, 2016.  Credit: Julian Leek
Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from NASA CRS-8 cargo mission is moved by crane from drone ship to an upright storage cradle on land at Port Canaveral, Florida on April 12, 2016. Credit: Julian Leek

The deal marks a major milestone and turning point in SpaceX CEO and billionaire founder Elon Musk’s long sought endeavor to turn the science fictionesque quest of rocket reusability into the scientific fact of reality.

“Thanks for the longstanding faith in SpaceX,” tweeted SpaceX CEO Elon Musk after today’s joint SES/SpaceX announcement.

“We very much look forward to doing this milestone flight with you.”

Elon Musk’s goal is to radically slash the cost of launching rockets and access to space via rocket recycling – in a way that will one day lead to his vision of a ‘City on Mars.’

Over just the past 8 months, SpaceX has successfully recovered 6 of the firms Falcon 9 first stage boosters intact – by land and by sea since December 2015 – in hopes of recycling and reusing them with new payloads from paying customers daring enough to take the risk of stepping into the unknown!

SES is that daring company and has repeatedly shown faith in SpaceX. They were the first commercial satellite operator to launch with SpaceX with SES-8 back in October 2013. Earlier this year the firm also launched SES-9 on the recently upgraded full thrust version of Falcon 9 in March 2016.

Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 awaits launch of SES-9 communications satellite on Feb. 25, 2016 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 prior to launch of SES-9 communications satellite on Mar. 4, 2016 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“Having been the first commercial satellite operator to launch with SpaceX back in 2013, we are excited to once again be the first customer to launch on SpaceX’s first ever mission using a flight-proven rocket. We believe reusable rockets will open up a new era of spaceflight, and make access to space more efficient in terms of cost and manifest management,” said Martin Halliwell, Chief Technology Officer at SES, in the statement.

“This new agreement reached with SpaceX once again illustrates the faith we have in their technical and operational expertise. The due diligence the SpaceX team has demonstrated throughout the design and testing of the SES-10 mission launch vehicle gives us full confidence that SpaceX is capable of launching our first SES satellite dedicated to Latin America into space.”

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon cargo spacecraft launches on April 8, 2015 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on the CRS-8 mission to the International Space Station.   Credit: Julian Leek
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon cargo spacecraft launches on April 8, 2015 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on the CRS-8 mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Julian Leek

But the company first has to prove that the used vehicle can survive the extreme and unforgiving stresses of the violent spaceflight environment before they can relaunch it. So they have been carefully inspecting it for structural integrity, checking all the booster systems, plumbing, avionics, etc and retesting the first stage Merlin 1D engines.

Multiple full duration hot fire tests of the fully integrated booster have been conducted at the SpaceX test facility in McGregor, Texas as part of long life endurance testing. This includes igniting all nine used first stage Merlin 1D engines housed at the base of a landed rocket for approximately three minutes.

For the SES-10 launch, SpaceX plans to use the Falcon 9 booster that landed on an ocean going drone ship from NASA’s CRS-8 space station mission launched in April 2016, said Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX vice president of Flight Reliability, to reporters recently at the Kennedy Space Center during NASA’s CRS-9 cargo launch to the ISS.

SpaceX has derived many lessons learned on how to maximize the chances for a successful rocket recovery, Koenigsmann explained to Universe Today at KSC when I asked for some insight.

“We learned a lot … from the landings,” Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX vice president of Flight Reliability, told Universe Today during the media briefings for the SpaceX CRS-9 space station cargo resupply launch on July 18.

“There are no structural changes first of all.”

“The key thing is to protect the engines- and make sure that they start up well [in space during reentry],” Koenigsmann elaborated, while they are in flight and “during reentry.”

“And in particular the hot trajectory, so to speak, like the ones that comes in after a fast payload, like the geo-transfer payload basically.”

“Those engines need to be protected so that they start up in the proper way. That’s something that we learned.”

The SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage is outfitted with four landing legs at the base and four grid fins at the top to conduct the landing attempts.

“In general I think the landing concept with the legs, and the number of burns and the way we perform those seems to work OK,” Koenigsmann told me.

SpaceX Falcon 9 launches and lands over Port Canaveral in this streak shot showing  rockets midnight liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:45 a.m. EDT on July 18, 2016 carrying Dragon CRS-9 craft to the International Space Station (ISS) with almost 5,000 pounds of cargo and docking port. View from atop Exploration Tower in Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 launches and lands over Port Canaveral in this streak shot showing rockets midnight liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:45 a.m. EDT on July 18, 2016 carrying Dragon CRS-9 craft to the International Space Station (ISS) with almost 5,000 pounds of cargo and docking port. View from atop Exploration Tower in Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“Re-launching a rocket that has already delivered spacecraft to orbit is an important milestone on the path to complete and rapid reusability,” said Gwynne Shotwell, President and Chief Operating Officer of SpaceX.

“SES has been a strong supporter of SpaceX’s approach to reusability over the years and we’re delighted that the first launch of a flight-proven rocket will carry SES-10.”

Remote camera photo from "Of Course I Still Love You" droneship of Falcon 9 first stage landing following launch of Dragon cargo ship to ISS on CRS-8 mission on 8 April 2016. Credit: SpaceX
Remote camera photo from “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship of Falcon 9 first stage landing following launch of Dragon cargo ship to ISS on CRS-8 mission on 8 April 2016. Credit: SpaceX

How much money will SES save by using a spent, recycled first stage Falcon 9 booster?

SpaceX says the price of a completely new Falcon 9 booster is approximately $60 million.

Shotwell has said SpaceX will reduce the cost about 30%. So SES might be saving around $20 million – but there are no published numbers regarding this particular launch contract.

Incredible sight of pleasure craft zooming past SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016 as it arrives at the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL,  atop droneship platform on June 2, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Incredible sight of pleasure craft zooming past SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016 as it arrives at the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL, atop droneship platform on June 2, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SES-10 will be the first SES satellite wholly dedicated to Latin America.

“The satellite will provide coverage over Mexico, serve the Spanish speaking South America in one single beam, and cover Brazil with the ability to support off-shore oil and gas exploration,” according to SES.

It will replace capacity currently provided by two other satellites, namely AMC-3 and AMC-4, and will “provide enhanced coverage and significant capacity expansion over Latin America – including Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean. The high-powered, tailored and flexible beams will provide direct-to-home broadcasting, enterprise and mobility services.”

It is equipped with a Ku-band payload of 55 36MHz transponder equivalents, of which 27 are incremental. It will be stationed at 67 degrees West.

SES-10 was built by Airbus Defence and Space and is based on the Eurostar E3000 platform. Notably it will use “an electric plasma propulsion system for on-orbit manoeuvres and a chemical system for initial orbit raising and some on-orbit manoeuvres.”

SES-10 satellite mission artwork. Credit: SES
SES-10 satellite mission artwork. Credit: SES

The most recent SpaceX Falcon 9 booster to be recovered followed the dramatic overnight launch of the Japanese JCSAT-16 telecom satellite on Aug. 14.

Port Canaveral aerial view showing SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage back on land in storage cradle after arriving back into port and craning off droneship barge it propulsively soft landed on after launching JCSAT-16 Japanese comsat on Aug. 14, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. NASA’s.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Port Canaveral aerial view showing SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage back on land in storage cradle after arriving back into port and craning off droneship barge it propulsively soft landed on after launching JCSAT-16 Japanese comsat on Aug. 14, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. NASA’s. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

It was towed back into port on atop the diminutive OCISLY ocean landing platform that measures only about 170 ft × 300 ft (52 m × 91 m). SpaceX formally dubs it an ‘Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship’ or ASDS.

The 6 successful Falcon upright first stage landings are part of a continuing series of SpaceX technological marvels/miracles rocking the space industry to its core.

SpaceX had already successfully recovered first stages three times in a row at sea earlier this year on the ocean going drone ship barge using the company’s OCISLY Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) on April 8, May 6 and May 27, prior to JCSAT-16 on Aug. 14.

Two land landings back at Cape Canaveral Landing Zone-1 were accomplished on Dec. 21, 2015 and July 18, 2016.

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster moving along the Port Canaveral channel atop droneship platform with cruise ship in background nears ground docking facility on June 2, 2016 following Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 booster moving along the Port Canaveral channel atop droneship platform with cruise ship in background nears ground docking facility on June 2, 2016 following Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

SpaceX SES-9 launch from Cape Canaveral AFS, FL on March 4, 2016.    Credit:  Julian Leek
SpaceX SES-9 launch from Cape Canaveral AFS, FL on March 4, 2016. Credit: Julian Leek
Ignition and liftoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 as umbilical’s fly away from rocket carrying SES-9 satellite to orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on March 4, 2016. As seen from remote camera set near rocket on launch pad 40.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Ignition and liftoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 as umbilical’s fly away from rocket carrying SES-9 satellite to orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on March 4, 2016. As seen from remote camera set near rocket on launch pad 40. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Sea Landed SpaceX Falcon 9 Sails Back into Port Canaveral: Gallery

This recovered 156-foot-tall (47-meter) SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage has arrived back into Port Canaveral, FL after successfully launching JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. NASA’s VAB in the background.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
This recovered 156-foot-tall (47-meter) SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage has arrived back into Port Canaveral, FL after successfully launching JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. NASA’s VAB in the background – as seen from Exploration Tower on Aug. 19. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

PORT CANAVERAL, FL — Rocket recycling continues apace as the latest SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to successfully launch a payload to orbit on Aug. 14 and land the first stage at sea minutes later, sailed safely into Port Canaveral just days later atop the dedicated drone ship landing platform.

It’s just the latest previously unfathomable and science fictionesque space adventure turned into science reality by SpaceX – a burgeoning aerospace giant.

A virgin SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Japanese JCSAT-16 telecom satellite roared to life past midnight last Sunday, Aug. 14, at 1:26 a.m. EDT and streaked to orbit from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

After the first stage firing was completed, it separated from the second stage, turned around 180 degrees, relit three of its Merlin 1D engines and began descending back to Earth towards the waiting drone ship barge.

Scarcely nine minutes later the 15 story tall first stage completed a pinpoint and upright soft landing on a prepositioned ocean going platform some 400 miles (650 km) off shore of of Florida’s east coast in the Atlantic Ocean., after successfully delivering the Japanese communications satellite to its intended geostationary orbit.

Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from JCSAT-16 launch after arrival in Port Canaveral, FL on Aug. 17, 2016 with landing legs deployed. Credit: Julian Leek
Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from JCSAT-16 launch after arrival in Port Canaveral, FL on Aug. 17, 2016 with landing legs deployed. Credit: Julian Leek

It was towed back into port on Wedenesday, Aug. 16 atop the diminutive ocean landing platform measuring only about 170 ft × 300 ft (52 m × 91 m). SpaceX formally dubs it an ‘Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship’ or ASDS.

Port Canaveral aerial view showing SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage back on land in storage cradle after arriving back into port and craning off droneship barge it propulsively soft landed on after launching JCSAT-16 Japanese comsat on Aug. 14, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. NASA’s.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Port Canaveral aerial view showing SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage back on land in storage cradle after arriving back into port and craning off droneship barge it propulsively soft landed on after launching JCSAT-16 Japanese comsat on Aug. 14, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. NASA’s. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The JCSAT-16 satellite was successfully deployed from the second stage about 32 minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral – as the primary objective of this flight.

The secondary experimental objective was to try and recover the first stage booster via a propulsive landing on the ocean-going platform named “Of Course I Still Love You” or OCISLY.

The ocean-going barge is named “Of Course I Still Love You” after a starship from a novel written by Iain M. Banks.

OCISLY and the vertical booster arrived back into Port Canaveral three days later on Wednesday morning, Aug. 17,floating past unsuspecting tourists and pleasure craft.

A heavy duty crane lifted the spent 156-foot-tall (47-meter) booster off the OCISLY barge and onto a restraining cradle within hours of arrival.

Watch this exquisitely detailed video from USLaunchReport showing workers capping the first stage and preparing the booster for craning off the barge on Aug. 17, 2016.

Video Caption: SpaceX – JCSAT-16 – In Port – YouTube 4K – 08-17-2016. Credit: USLaunchReport

One by one, workers then removed all four landing legs over the next two days.

It will be tilted and lowered horizontally and then be placed onto a multi-wheeled transport for shipment back to SpaceX launch processing facilities and hangars at Cape Canaveral for refurbishment, exhaustive engine and structural testing. It will also be washed, stored and evaluated for reuse.

Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from JCSAT-16 launch after arrival in Port Canaveral, FL on Aug. 17, 2016 after 3 landing legs removed. Credit: Julian Leek
Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from JCSAT-16 launch after arrival in Port Canaveral, FL on Aug. 19, 2016 after 3 landing legs removed. Credit: Julian Leek

As always, SpaceX will derive lessons learned and apply them to the upcoming missions – as outlined by SpaceX VP Hans Koenigsmann in my story here.

This 6th successful Falcon upright first stage landing – two by land and four by sea – is part of a continuing series of technological marvels/miracles rocking the space industry to its core.

The sextet of intact and upright touchdowns of the recovered 156-foot-tall (47-meter) booster count as stunning successes towards SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk’s vision of rocket reusability and radically slashing the cost of sending rockets to space by recovering the boosters and eventually reflying them with new payloads from paying customers.

To date SpaceX had successfully recovered first stages three times in a row at sea earlier this year on the ocean going drone ship barge using the company’s OCISLY Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) on April 8, May 6 and May 27.

Two land landings back at Cape Canaveral Landing Zone-1 were accomplished on Dec. 21, 2015 and July 18, 2016.

The JCSAT-16 communications satellite was built by Space Systems Loral for Tokyo-based SKY Perfect JSAT Corp. It is equipped Ku-band and Ka-band communications services for customers of SKY Perfect JSAT Corp.

The satellite was launched using the upgraded version of the 229 foot tall Falcon 9 rocket.

Relive the launch via this pair of videos from remote video cameras set at the SpaceX launch pad 40 facility:

Video caption: SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of JCSAT-16 on Aug. 14, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Video Caption: Launch of the JCSAT-16 communications satellite on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on 8/14/2016 from Pad 40 of CCAFS. Credit: Jeff Seibert

SKY Perfect JSAT Corp. is a leading satellite operator in the Asia – Pacific region. JCSAT-16 will be positioned 22,300 miles (35,800 kilometers) above the equator.

The Aug. 14 launch was the second this year for SKY Perfect JSAT. The JCSAT-14 satellite was already successfully launched earlier this year atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 on May 6.

Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 at 1:26 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 at 1:26 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

JCSAT-16 will primarily serve as an on orbit back up spare for the company’s existing services, a company spokeswomen told Universe Today at the media launch viewing site.

Tourists oblivious to the SpaceX technological marvel - recovering the Falcon 9 1st stage from JCSAT-16 launch - behind them at Port Canaveral, FL on Aug. 20, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Tourists oblivious to the SpaceX technological marvel – recovering the Falcon 9 1st stage from JCSAT-16 launch – behind them at Port Canaveral, FL on Aug. 20, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Up close view of hoisting cap and grid fins on recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 from JCSAT-16 launch after arrival into Port Canaveral, FL.    NASA’s VAB in the background - as seen from Exploration Tower on Aug. 19. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close view of hoisting cap and grid fins on recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 from JCSAT-16 launch after arrival into Port Canaveral, FL. NASA’s VAB in the background – as seen from Exploration Tower on Aug. 19. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying JCSAT-16 Japanese comsat to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 at 1:26 a.m. EDT from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Dawn Leek Taylor
Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying JCSAT-16 Japanese comsat to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 at 1:26 a.m. EDT from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Dawn Leek Taylor
Streak shot of SpaceX Falcon 9 delivering JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit after blastoff on Aug. 14, 2016 at 1:26 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: Julian Leek
Streak shot of SpaceX Falcon 9 delivering JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit after blastoff on Aug. 14, 2016 at 1:26 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Julian Leek

Stairway to Heaven! – Boeing Starliner Crew Access Arm’s ‘Awesome’ Launch Pad Installation

A crane lifts the Crew Access Arm and White Room for Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft for mating to the Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41.  Astronauts will walk through the arm to board the Starliner spacecraft stacked atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A crane lifts the Crew Access Arm and White Room for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft for mating to the Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 on Aug. 15, 2016. Astronauts will walk through the arm to board the Starliner spacecraft stacked atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL — A new ‘Stairway to Heaven’ which American astronauts will soon stride along as “the last place on Earth” departure point aboard our next generation of human spaceships, was at long last hoisted into place at the ULA Atlas rocket launch pad on Florida’s Space Coast on Monday Aug 15, at an “awesome” media event witnessed by space journalists including Universe Today.

“This is awesome,” Chris Ferguson, a former shuttle commander who is now Boeing’s deputy program manager for the company’s Commercial Crew Program told Universe Today in an exclusive interview at the launch pad – after workers finished installing the spanking new Crew Access Arm walkway for astronauts leading to the hatch of Boeing’s Starliner ‘Space Taxi.’

Starliner will ferry crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS) as soon as 2018.

“It’s great to see the arm up there,” Ferguson elaborated to Universe Today. “I know it’s probably a small part of the overall access tower. But it’s the most significant part!”

“We used to joke about the 195 foot level on the shuttle pad as being ‘the last place on Earth.”

“This will now be the new ‘last place on Earth’! So we are pretty charged up about it!” Ferguson gushed.

Up close view of Boeing Starliner Crew Access Arm and White Room craned into place at Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 on Aug. 15, 2016.   Credit: Dawn Leek Taylor
Up close view of Boeing Starliner Crew Access Arm and White Room craned into place at Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 on Aug. 15, 2016. Credit: Dawn Leek Taylor

Under hot sunny skies portending the upcoming restoration of America’s ability to once again launch American astronauts from American soil when American rockets ignite, the newly constructed 50-foot-long, 90,000-pound ‘Crew Access Arm and White Room’ was lifted and mated to the newly built ‘Crew Access Tower’ at Space Launch Complex-41 (SLC-41) on Monday morning, Aug. 15.

“We talked about how the skyline is changing here and this is one of the more visible changes.”

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner crew capsule stacked atop the venerable United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket at pad 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida will launch crews to the massive orbiting science outpost continuously soaring some 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.

Space workers, enthusiasts and dreamers alike have been waiting years for this momentous day to happen. And I was thrilled to observe all the action firsthand along with the people who made it happen from NASA, United Launch Alliance, Boeing, the contractors – as well as to experience it with my space media colleagues.

“All the elements that we talked about the last few years are now reality,” Ferguson told me.

The Crew Access Arm and White Room for Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft approaches the notch for mating to the Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 at level 13 on Aug. 15, 2016, as workers observe from upper tower level.  Astronauts will walk through the arm to board the Starliner spacecraft stacked atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Crew Access Arm and White Room for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft approaches the notch for mating to the Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 at level 13 on Aug. 15, 2016, as workers observe from upper tower level. Astronauts will walk through the arm to board the Starliner spacecraft stacked atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Attaching the access arm is vital and visual proof that at long last America means business and that a renaissance in human spaceflight will commence in some 18 months or less when commercially built American crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX take flight to the heavens above – and a new space era of regular, robust and lower cost space flights begins.

It took about an hour for workers to delicately hoist the gleaming grey steel and aluminum white ‘Stairway to Heaven’ by crane into place at the top of the tower – at one of the busiest launch pads in the world!

It’s about 130 feet above the pad surface since it’s located at the 13th level of the tower.

The install work began at about 7:30 a.m. EDT as we watched a work crew lower a giant grappling hook and attach cables. Then they carefully raised the arm off the launch pad surface by crane. The arm had been trucked to the launch pad on Aug. 11.

The tower itself is comprised of segmented tiers that were built in segments just south of the pad. They were stacked on the pad over the past few months – in between launches. Altogether they form a nearly 200-foot-tall steel structure.

Another crew stationed in the tower about 160 feet above ground waited as the arm was delicately craned into the designated notch. The workers then spent several more hours methodically bolting and welding the arm to the tower to finish the assembly process.

Indeed Monday’s installation of the Crew Access Arm and White Room at pad 41 basically completes the construction of the first new Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station since the Apollo moon landing era of the 1960s.

“It is the first new crew access structure at the Florida spaceport since the space shuttle’s Fixed Service Structures were put in place before Columbia’s first flight in 1981,” say NASA officials.

Overall the steel frame of the massive tower weighs over a million pounds. For perspective, destination ISS now weighs in at about a million pounds in low Earth orbit.

Construction of the tower began about 18 months ago.

“You think about when we started building this 18 months ago and now it’s one of the most visible changes to the Cape’s horizon since the 1960s,” said Ferguson at Monday’s momentous media event. “It’s a fantastic day.”

The White Room is an enclosed area at the end of the Crew Access Arm. It big enough for astronauts to make final adjustments to their suits and is spacious enough for technicians to assist the astronauts climbing aboard the spacecraft and get tucked into their seats in the final hours before liftoff.

“You have to stop and celebrate these moments in the craziness of all the things we do,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, at the event. “It’s going to be so cool when our astronauts are walking out across this access arm to get on the spacecraft and go to the space station.”

The Crew Access Arm was built by Saur at NASA’s nearby off site facility at Oak Hill.

And when Starliner takes flight it will hearken back to the dawn of the Space Age.

“John Glenn was the first to fly on an Atlas, now our next leap into the future will be to have astronauts launch from here on Atlas V,” said Barb Egan, program manager for Commercial Crew for ULA.

Boeing is manufacturing Starliner in what is officially known as Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida under contract with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

Hull of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner Structural Test Article (STA)- the first Starliner to be built in the company’s modernized Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Hull of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner Structural Test Article (STA)- the first Starliner to be built in the company’s modernized Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Boeing CST 100 Starliner is one of two private astronaut capsules – along with the SpaceX Crew Dragon – being developed under a CCP commercial partnership contract with NASA to end our sole reliance on Russia for crew launches back and forth to the International Space Station (ISS).

The goal of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program since its inception in 2010 is to restore America’s capability to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil to the ISS, as soon as possible.

Furthermore when the Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon become operational the permanent resident ISS crew will grow to 7 – enabling a doubling of science output aboard the science laboratory.

This significant growth in research capabilities will invaluably assist NASA in testing technologies and human endurance in its agency wide goal of sending humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ by the 2030s with the mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion deep space capsule concurrently under full scale development by the agency.

The next key SLS milestone is a trest firing of the RS-25 main engines at NASA Stennis this Thursday, Aug. 18 – watch for my onsite reports!

Boeing was awarded a $4.2 Billion contract in September 2014 by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to complete development and manufacture of the CST-100 Starliner space taxi under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA’s Launch America initiative.

Since the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011, the US was been 100% dependent on the Russian Soyuz capsule for astronauts rides to the ISS at a cost exceeding $70 million per seat.

When will Ferguson actually set foot inside the walkway?

“I am hoping to get up there and walk through there in a couple of weeks or so when it’s all strapped in and done. I want to see how they are doing and walk around.”

How does the White Room fit around Starliner and keep it climate controlled?

“The end of the white room has a part that slides up and down and moves over and slides on top of the spacecraft when it’s in place.”

“There is an inflatable seal that forms the final seal to the spacecraft so that you have all the appropriate humidity control and the purge without the Florida atmosphere inside the crew module,” Ferguson replied.

Up close, mid-air view of Crew Access Tower and front of White Room during installation.  The White Room will fit snugly against Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft with inflatable seal to maintain climate control and clean conditions as astronauts board capsule atop Atlas rocket hours before launch on  United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close, mid-air view of Crew Access Arm and front of White Room during installation. The White Room will fit snugly against Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft with inflatable seal to maintain climate control and clean conditions as astronauts board capsule atop Atlas rocket hours before launch on United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Boeing and NASA are targeting Feb. 2018 for launch of the first crewed orbital test flight on the Atlas V rocket. The Atlas will be augmented with two solid rocket motors on the first stage and a dual engine Centaur upper stage.

How confident is Ferguson about meeting the 2018 launch target?

“The first crew flight is scheduled for February 2018. I am confident.” Ferguson responded.

“And we have a lot of qualification to get through between now and then. But barring any large unforeseen issues we can make it.”

The Crew Access Tower after installation of the Crew Access Arm and White Room for Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft on Aug. 15, 2016 at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Crew Access Tower after installation of the Crew Access Arm and White Room for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft on Aug. 15, 2016 at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

As the Boeing Starliner Crew Access Arm and White Room are bolted into place behind us at Space Launch Complex 41, Chris Ferguson, former shuttle commander and current Boeing deputy program manager for Commercial Crew, and Ken Kremer of Universe Today discuss the details and future of human spaceflight on Aug. 15, 2016 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  Credit: Jeff Seibert
As the Boeing Starliner Crew Access Arm and White Room are bolted into place behind us at Space Launch Complex 41, Chris Ferguson, former shuttle commander and current Boeing deputy program manager for Commercial Crew, and Ken Kremer of Universe Today discuss the future of human spaceflight on Aug. 15, 2016 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: Jeff Seibert

SpaceX Falcon 9 Set for Post-Midnight Blastoff and Landing on Aug. 14 – Watch Live

Blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Dec. 21, 2015.   First stage successfully landed vertically back at the Cape ten minutes later for the first time in history.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Dec. 21, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Scarcely three weeks after the mesmerizing midnight launch and landing of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that delivered over two tons of science and critical hardware to the space station for NASA, the innovative firm is set to repeat the back to back space feats – with a few big twists – during a post midnight launch this Sunday, Aug.14 of a Japanese telecom satellite.

In less than 24 hours, a freshly built SpaceX Falcon 9 is set to transform night into day and launch the JCSAT-16 communications satellite from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

And some nine minutes later, the 15 story Falcon 9 first stage is scheduled to make a pinpoint soft landing on a tiny, prepositioned drone ship at sea in the vast Atlantic Ocean.

SpaceX Falcon 9 launches and lands over Port Canaveral in this streak shot showing  rockets midnight liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:45 a.m. EDT on July 18, 2016 carrying Dragon CRS-9 craft to the International Space Station (ISS) with almost 5,000 pounds of cargo and docking port. View from atop Exploration Tower in Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 launches and lands over Port Canaveral in this streak shot showing rockets midnight liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:45 a.m. EDT on July 18, 2016 carrying Dragon CRS-9 craft to the International Space Station (ISS) with almost 5,000 pounds of cargo and docking port. View from atop Exploration Tower in Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

To date SpaceX has successfully soft landed 5 first stage boosters over the past eight months – two by land and three by sea.

Nighttime liftoffs are always a viewing favorite among the general public – whether visiting from near or far. And this one is virtually certain to offer some spectacular summer fireworks since the weather looks rather promising – if all goes well.

Sunday’s launch window opens at 1:26 a.m. EDT and extends two hours long for the 229 foot tall Falcon 9 rocket. The window closes at 3:26 a.m. EDT.

The commercial mission involves lofting the JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) for SKY Perfect JSAT – a leading satellite operator in the Asia – Pacific region. JCSAT-16 will be positioned 22,300 miles (35,800 kilometers) above the equator.

Sunday’s launch is the second this year for SKY Perfect JSAT. The JCSAT-14 satellite was already launched earlier this year on May 6.

You can watch the launch live via a special live webcast from SpaceX.

The SpaceX webcast will be available starting at about 20 minutes before liftoff, at approximately 1:06 a.m. EDT at SpaceX.com/webcast

The weather currently looks very good. Air Force meteorologists are predicting an 80 percent chance of favorable weather conditions at launch time in the wee hours early Sunday morning.

The primate concerns are for violations of the Cumulus Cloud and Think Cloud rules.

The U.S. Air Force’s 45th Space Wing will support SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch of JCSAT-16.

In cases of any delays for technical or weather issues, a backup launch opportunity exists 24 hours later on Monday morning with a 70 percent chance of favorable weather.

The rocket has already been rolled out to the launch pad on the transporter and raised to its vertical position.

The path to launch was cleared following the successful Aug. 10 hold down static fire test of the Falcon 9 first stage Merlin 1-D engines. SpaceX routinely performs the hot fire test to ensure the rocket is ready.

Watch this crystal clear video of the Static Fire Test from USLaunchReport:

Video Caption: SpaceX – JCSAT-16 – Static Fire Test 08-10-2016. On a humid, windless evening at 11 PM, JCSAT-16 gave one good vapor show. Credit: USLaunchReport

Via a fleet of 15 satellites, Tokyo, Japan based SKY Perfect JSAT provides high quality satellite communications to its customers.
The JCSAT-16 communications satellite was designed and manufactured by Space Systems/Loral for SKY Perfect JSAT Corporation.

JCSAT-16 satellite will separate from the second stage and will be deployed about 32 minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral. The staging events are usually broadcast live by SpaceX via stunning imagery from onboard video cameras.

A secondary objective is to try and recover the first stage booster via a propulsive landing on an ocean-going platform.

This booster is again equipped with 4 landing legs and 4 grid fins.

Following stage separation, SpaceX will try to soft land the first stage on the “Of Course I Still Love You” drone ship positioned about 400 miles (650 km) off shore of Florida’s east coast in the Atlantic Ocean.

But SpaceX officials say landings from GTO mission destinations are extremely challenging because the first stage will be subject to extreme velocities and re-entry heating.

If all goes well with the supersonic retropropulsion landing on the barge, the booster will arrive back into Port Canaveral a few days later.

Pelican Navy stands watch and greets SpaceX Naval Fleet and Falcon 9 rocket float by on barge approaching mouth of Port Canaveral, Fl, on June 2, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Pelican Navy stands watch and greets SpaceX Naval Fleet and Falcon 9 rocket float by on barge approaching mouth of Port Canaveral, Fl, on June 2, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

To date SpaceX has successfully recovered first stages three times in a row at sea this year on the an ocean going drone ship barge using the company’s OCISLY Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) on April 8, May 6 and May 27.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Up closse view of SpaceX ASDS drone ship with the recovered Falcon 9 first stage rocket returns late at night to Port Canaveral, Florida on May 9, 2016.  Credit:  Julian Leek
Up closse view of SpaceX ASDS drone ship with the recovered Falcon 9 first stage rocket returns late at night to Port Canaveral, Florida on May 9, 2016. Credit: Julian Leek

Mission patch for SpaceX JCSAT-16 launch. Credit: SpaceX
Mission patch for SpaceX JCSAT-16 launch. Credit: SpaceX

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Learn more about SpaceX missions, Juno at Jupiter, SpaceX CRS-9 rocket launch, ISS, ULA Atlas and Delta rockets, Orbital ATK Cygnus, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Aug 12-14: “SpaceX missions/launches to ISS on CRS-9, Juno at Jupiter, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

SpaceX Adopts Lessons Learned From Multiple Booster Landings – Test Fires Recovered 1st Stage: Videos

SpaceX completed the first full duration test firing of a landed first booster on July 28, 2016 on a test stand at their rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas.
SpaceX completed the first full duration test firing of a landed first stage booster on July 28, 2016 on a test stand at their rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas. Credit: SpaceX

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s daring dream of rocket recycling and reusability is getting closer and closer to reality with each passing day. After a breathtaking series of experimental flight tests aimed at safely landing the firms spent Falcon 9 first stages on land and at sea over the past half year the bold effort achieved another major milestone by just completing the first full duration test firing of one of those landed boosters.

On Thursday, July 28, SpaceX engineers successful conducted a full duration static engine test firing of the 156-foot-tall (47-meter) recovered Falcon 9 first stage booster while held down on a test stand at the company’s rocket development test facility in McGregor, Texas. The engines fired up for about two and a half minutes.

The SpaceX team has been perfecting the landing techniques by adopting lessons learned after each landing campaign attempt.

What are the lessons learned so far from the first stage landings and especially the hard landings? Are there any changes being made to the booster structure? How well did the landing burn scenario perform?

During SpaceX’s recent CRS-9 launch campaign media briefings at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on July 18, I asked SpaceX VP Hans Koenigsmann for some insight.

“We learned a lot … from the landings,” Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX vice president of Flight Reliability, told Universe Today during the recent media briefings for the SpaceX CRS-9 space station cargo resupply launch on July 18.

“There are no structural changes first of all.”

“The key thing is to protect the engines,” Koenigsmann elaborated, while they are in flight and “during reentry”.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage is outfitted with four landing legs at the base and four grid fins at the top to conduct the landing attempts.

“In general I think the landing concept with the legs, and the number of burns and the way we perform those seems to work OK,” Koenigsmann told Universe Today.

After separating from the second stage at hypersonic speeds of up to some 4000 mph, the first stage engines are reignited to reverse course and do a boost backburn back to the landing site and slow the rocket down for a soft landing, via supersonic retropulsion.

Proper engine performance is critical to enabling a successful touchdown.

“The key thing is to protect the engines – and make sure that they start up well [in space during reentry],” Koenigsmann explained. “And in particular the hot trajectory, so to speak, like the ones that comes in after a fast payload, like the geo-transfer payload basically.”

“Those engines need to be protected so that they start up in the proper way. That’s something that we learned.”

Elon Musk’s goal is to radically slash the cost of launching rockets and access to space via rocket reuse – in a way that will one day lead to his vision of a ‘City on Mars.’

SpaceX hopes to refly a once flown booster later this year, sometime in the Fall, using the ocean landed Falcon from NASA’s CRS-8 space station mission launched in April, says Koenigsmann.

But the company first has to prove that the used vehicle can survive the extreme and unforgiving stresses of the violent spaceflight environment before they can relaunch it.

The July 28 test firing is part of that long life endurance testing and involved igniting all nine used first stage Merlin 1D engines housed at the base of a used landed rocket.

The Falcon 9 first stage generates over 1.71 million pounds of thrust when all nine Merlin engines fire up on the test stand for a duration of up to three minutes – the same as for an actual launch.

Watch the engine test in this SpaceX video:

Video Caption: Falcon 9 first stage from May 2016 JCSAT mission was test fired, full duration, at SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas rocket development facility on July 28, 2016. Credit: SpaceX

The used 15 story Falcon booster had successfully carried out an intact soft landing on an ocean going platform after launching a Japanese commercial telecommunications satellite only two months ago on May 6 of this year.

Just 10 minutes after launching the JCSAT-14 telecom satellite to a Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO), the used first stage relit a first stage Merlin 1D engine.

It conducted a series of three recovery burns to maneuver the rocket to a designated landing spot at sea or on land and rapidly decelerate it from supersonic speeds for a propulsive soft landing, intact and upright using a quartet of landing legs that deploy in the final moments before a slow speed touchdown.

However, although the landing was upright and intact, this particular landing was also classed as a ‘hard landing’ because the booster landed at a higher velocity and Merlin 1D first stage engines did sustain heavy damage as seen in up close photos and acknowledged by Musk.

“Most recent rocket took max damage, due to v high entry velocity. Will be our life leader for ground tests to confirm others are good,” Musk tweeted at the time.

Nevertheless it all worked out spectacularly and this was the first one to be recovered from the much more demanding, high velocity trajectory delivering a satellite to GTO.

Indeed prior to liftoff, Musk had openly doubted a successful landing outcome, since this first stage was flying faster and at a higher altitude at the time of separation from the second stage and thus was much more difficult to slow down and maneuver back to the ocean based platform compared to ISS missions, for example.

So although this one cannot be reflown, it still serves another great purpose for engineers seeking to determining the longevity of the booster and its various components – as now audaciously demonstrated by the July 28 engine test stand firing.

“We learned a lot even on the missions where things go wrong with the landing, everything goes well on the main mission of course,” said Koenigsmann.

Altogether SpaceX has successfully soft landed and recovered five of their first stage Falcon 9 boosters intact and upright since the history making first ever land landing took place just seven months ago in December 2015 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The most recent launch and landing occurred last week on July 18, 2016 during the dramatic midnight blastoff of the SpaceX CRS-9 commercial cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) under contract for NASA.

See the stupendous events unfold in up close photos and videos herein.

SpaceX Falcon 9 launches and lands over Port Canaveral in this streak shot showing  rockets midnight liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:45 a.m. EDT on July 18, 2016 carrying Dragon CRS-9 craft to the International Space Station (ISS) with almost 5,000 pounds of cargo and docking port. View from atop Exploration Tower in Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 launches and lands over Port Canaveral in this streak shot showing rockets midnight liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:45 a.m. EDT on July 18, 2016 carrying Dragon CRS-9 craft to the International Space Station (ISS) with almost 5,000 pounds of cargo and docking port. View from atop Exploration Tower in Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Following each Falcon 9 launch and landing attempt, SpaceX engineers assess the voluminous and priceless data gathered, analyze the outcome and adopt the lessons learned.

Moments before dramatic touchdown of SpaceX Falcon 9 1st stage at Landing Zone-1 (LX-1) accompanied by sonic booms after launching Dragon CRS-9 supply ship to orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida at 12:45 a.m., bound for the International Space Station (ISS).   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Moments before dramatic touchdown of SpaceX Falcon 9 1st stage at Landing Zone-1 (LX-1) accompanied by sonic booms after launching Dragon CRS-9 supply ship to orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida at 12:45 a.m., bound for the International Space Station (ISS). Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CRS-9 marks only the second time SpaceX has attempted a land landing of the 15 story tall first stage booster back at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station – at the location called Landing Zone 1 (LZ 1).

Watch this exquisitely detailed up close video showing the CRS-9 first stage landing at LZ 1, as shot by space colleague Jeff Seibert from the ITL causeway at CCAFS- which dramatically concluded with multiple shockingly loud sonic booms rocketing across the Space Coast and far beyond and waking hordes of sleepers:

Video caption: This was the second terrestrial landing of a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster on July 18, 2016. It had just launched the CRS9 Dragon mission towards the ISS. The landing took place at LZ1, formerly known as Pad 13, located on CCAFS and caused a triple sonic boom heard 50 miles away. Credit: Jeff Seibert

The history making first ever ground landing successfully took place at Landing Zone 1 (LZ 1) on Dec. 22, 2015 as part of the ORBCOMM-2 mission. Landing Zone 1 is built on the former site of Space Launch Complex 13, a U.S. Air Force rocket and missile testing range.

SpaceX also successfully recovered first stages three times in a row at sea this year on an ocean going drone ship barge using the company’s OCISLY Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) on April 8, May 6 and May 27.

OCISLY is generally stationed approximately 400 miles (650 kilometers) off shore and east of Cape Canaveral, Florida in the Atlantic Ocean. The barge arrives back in port at Port Canaveral several days after the landing, depending on many factors like weather, port permission and the state of the rocket.

However while trying to extend the touchdown streak to 4 in a row during the latest drone ship landing attempt following the June 15 Eutelsat telecom launch to GTO, the booster basically crashed because it descended too quickly due to insufficient thrust from the Merlin descent engines.

The rocket apparently ran out of liquid oxygen fuel in the final moments before touchdown, hit hard, tipped over and pancaked onto the deck.

“Looks like early liquid oxygen depletion caused engine shutdown just above the deck,” Musk explained via twitter at the time.

“Looks like thrust was low on 1 of 3 landing engines. High g landings v sensitive to all engines operating at max.”

Flattened SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrived into Port Canaveral, FL atop a droneship late Saturday, June 18 after hard landing and tipping over following successful June 15, 2016  commercial payload launch.  Credit: Julian Leek
Flattened SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrived into Port Canaveral, FL atop a droneship late Saturday, June 18 after hard landing and tipping over following successful June 15, 2016 commercial payload launch. Credit: Julian Leek

“We learned a lot even on the mission where things go wrong with the landing,” Koenigsmann explained. “Everything goes well on the main mission of course.”

“That’s actually something where you have successful deploy and the landing doesn’t quite work- and yet its the landing that gets all the attention.”

“But even on those landings we learned a lot. In particular on the last landing [from Eutelsat launch] we learned a lot.”

“We believe we found a way to operationally protect these engines and to make it safer for them to start up – and to come up to full thrust and stay at full thrust.”

What exactly does “protecting the engines” mean “in flight?”

“Yes I mean protecting the engines during reentry,” Koenigsmann told me.

“That’s when the engines get hot. We enter with the engines facing the flow. So its basically the engines directly exposed to the hot flow. And that’s when you need to protect the engines and the gases and liquids that are in the engines. To make sure that nothing boils off and does funny things.”

“So all in all these series of drone ship landings has been extremely successful, even when we didn’t recover all the first stages [fully intact].”

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster moving along the Port Canaveral channel atop droneship platform with cruise ship in background nears ground docking facility on June 2, 2016 following Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 booster moving along the Port Canaveral channel atop droneship platform with cruise ship in background nears ground docking facility on June 2, 2016 following Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing SpaceX and CRS-9 mission coverage where he reported onsite direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Watch my launch pad video of the CRS-9 launch:

Video caption: SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off with Dragon CRS-9 resupply ship bound for the International Space Station on July 18, 2016 at 12:45 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, as seen in this up close video from Mobius remote camera positioned at pad. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch this CRS-9 launch and landing video compilation from space colleague Mike Wagner:

Video caption: SpaceX CRS-9 Launch and Landing compilation on 7/18/2016. Local papers reported 911 calls for a loud explosion up to 75 miles away. This sonic boom seemed louder than the first landing at the Cape in Dec. 2015. Credit: USLaunchReport

Prelaunch view of SpaceX Falcon 9 awaiting launch on May 27, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: Lane Hermann
Prelaunch view of SpaceX Falcon 9 awaiting launch on May 27, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Lane Hermann
First stage booster with landing legs removed from SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch was transported horizontally to SpaceX hangar at pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida on May 16, 2016. Credit: Julian Leek
First stage booster with landing legs removed from SpaceX JCSAT-14 launch was transported horizontally to SpaceX hangar at pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida on May 16, 2016. Credit: Julian Leek
Proud fisherman displays ultra fresh ‘catch of the day’ as ultra rare species of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket floats by simultaneously on barge in Port Canaveral, Fl, on June 2, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Proud fisherman displays ultra fresh ‘catch of the day’ as ultra rare species of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket floats by simultaneously on barge in Port Canaveral, Fl, on June 2, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 basks in nighttime glow after arriving into Port Canaveral on June 2, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 basks in nighttime glow after arriving into Port Canaveral on June 2, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Crackling Roar of Atlas Rocket Carries Clandestine NRO Surveillance Satellite Aloft From Cape

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the NROL-61 surveillance satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 on July 28, 2016 at 8:37 a.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the NROL-61 surveillance satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 on July 28, 2016 at 8:37 a.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL — Riding atop the crackling roar of an Atlas V rocket, a clandestine surveillance satellite for our nation’s spy masters was carried aloft by a powerful booster from the Florida space coast to an undisclosed orbit at breakfast time today, Thursday, July 28.

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the NROL-61 surveillance satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) lifted off from Space Launch Complex-41 right at the appointed time of 8:37 a.m. EDT this morning with approximately 1.5 million pounds of thrust.

The top secret NROL-61 satellite bolted on top and inside the 4 meter diameter nose cone was launched in support of US national defense and is vital to US national security.

“Thank you to the entire mission team for years of hard work and collaboration on today’s successful launch of NROL-61. We are proud the U.S. Air Force and NRO Office of Space Launch have entrusted ULA with delivering this critical asset for our nation’s security,” said Laura Maginnis, ULA vice president of Custom Services, in a statement.

“Our continued one launch at a time focus and exceptional teamwork make launches like today’s successful.”

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the NROL-61 surveillance satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 on July 28, 2016 at 8:37 a.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the NROL-61 surveillance satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 on July 28, 2016 at 8:37 a.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The launch was webcast live by ULA and featured video recorded call in questions about spaceflight from the general public – especially children!

The rocket roared off pad 41 atop an ever expanding plume of smoke and ash into a brilliant and cloudless blue sky under absolutely ideal weather conditions with clear lines of sight enjoyed by hordes of spectators gathered here from near and far, and lining the space coast beaches and surrounding viewing areas.

Many local area hotels were packed with space enthusiasts hoping for a space spectacular at this unusually convenient launch time – and they were not disappointed!!

Because the Atlas rocket was equipped with a pair of powerful solid rocket boosters to augment its liftoff thrust, the smoke plume was visible for as long as we could see it.

ULA Atlas V rocket lifts off with NROL-61 spy satellite for the NRO from pad 41 on July 28, 2016 at 8:37 a.m. EDT. Credit: Julian Leek
ULA Atlas V rocket lifts off with NROL-61 spy satellite for the NRO from pad 41 on July 28, 2016 at 8:37 a.m. EDT. Credit: Julian Leek

The rocket soon arced over, racing southeasterly to orbit and towards the African continent.

Virtually everything about the clandestine payload, its mission, purpose and goals are classified top secret on a mission of vital importance to America’s national security and defense needs.

The NRO is the government agency that runs a vast fleet of powerful orbital assets hosting a multitude of the most advanced, wide ranging and top secret capabilities.

The most recent NRO payload, known as NROL 37, was just launched by ULA last month on their Delta IV Heavy – the most powerful rocket in the world on June 11 – read my story here.

The venerable ULA Atlas V rocket sports a 100% record of launch success and its unusual for technical issues to hold up a launch. The ever changeable Florida weather is another matter entirely.

The NROL-61 mission counts as ULA’s sixth launch of 2016 and the 109th overall since the company was founded in 2006.

The 20 story tall Atlas V launched in its 421 configuration – the same as what will be used for manned launches with the crewed Boeing ‘Starliner’ space taxi carrying astronaut crews to the International Space Station.
This was the sixth Atlas V to launch in the 421 configuration.

The Atlas 421 vehicle includes a 4-meter diameter Extra Extended Payload Fairing (XEPF) payload fairing and two solid rocket boosters that augment the first stage. The Atlas booster for this mission was powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine and the Centaur upper stage was powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine.

The RD-180 burns RP-1 (Rocket Propellant-1 or highly purified kerosene) and liquid oxygen and delivers 860,200 lb of thrust at sea level.

The strap on solids deliver approximately 500,000 pounds of thrust.

The solids were jettisoned about 2 minutes after liftoff.

Virtually everything about the clandestine payload, its mission, purpose and goals are classified top secret.

The NRO is the government agency that runs a vast fleet of powerful orbital assets hosting a multitude of the most advanced, wide ranging and top secret capabilities.

The possible roles for the reconnaissance payload include signals intelligence, eavesdropping, imaging and spectroscopic observations, early missile warnings and much more.

The NRO was formed in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik and secretly created on September 6, 1961.

“The purpose is overseeing all satellite and overflight reconnaissance projects whether overt or covert. The existence of the organization is no longer classified today, but we’re still pressing to perform the functions necessary to keep American citizens safe,” according to the official NRO website.

Atlas V rocket streaks to orbit on smoke and ash carrying NROL-61 spy satellite for the NRO  after launch on July 28, 2016 at 8:37 a.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Atlas V rocket streaks to orbit on smoke and ash carrying NROL-61 spy satellite for the NRO after launch on July 28, 2016 at 8:37 a.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing on site reports direct from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the Kennedy Space Center and the ULA Atlas launch pad.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about SLS and Orion crew vehicle, SpaceX CRS-9 rocket launch, ISS, ULA Atlas and Delta rockets, Juno at Jupiter, Orbital ATK Antares & Cygnus, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

July 27-28: “ULA Atlas V NRO Spysat launch July 28, SpaceX launch to ISS on CRS-9, SLS, Orion, Juno at Jupiter, ULA Delta 4 Heavy NRO spy satellite, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Atlas V rocket streaks to orbit carrying NROL-61 spy satellite for the NRO  on July 28, 2016 at 8:37 a.m. EDT as seen from Satellite Beach, FL.  Credit: Jillian Laudick
Atlas V rocket streaks to orbit carrying NROL-61 spy satellite for the NRO on July 28, 2016 at 8:37 a.m. EDT as seen from Satellite Beach, FL. Credit: Jillian Laudick

Mission artwork for Atlas V NROL-61 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is painted on nose cone of Atlas V rocket and depicts a green lizard, Spike, riding an Atlas V  launch vehicle.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Mission artwork for Atlas V NROL-61 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is painted on nose cone of Atlas V rocket and depicts a green lizard, Spike, riding an Atlas V launch vehicle. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

A ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the NROL-61 satellite is poised for blastoff from the pad at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on July 28, 2016.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the NROL-61 satellite is poised for blastoff from the pad at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on July 28, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Top Secret NRO SpySat Set for Brilliant Breakfast Blastoff July 28 – Watch Live

A ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the NROL-61 satellite is poised for blastoff from the pad at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on July 28, 2016.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the NROL-61 satellite is poised for blastoff from the pad at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on July 28, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL — The nation’s newest surveillance satellite is all set for a brilliant breakfast blastoff on Thursday July 28 atop a powerful Atlas V rocket from the Florida Space Coast – and both the booster and weather are in excellent shape at this time!

The goal is carry the top secret NROL-61 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) to an undisclosed orbit which in support of US national defense and vital to US national security.

The NROL-61 mission is set to lift off on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket on Thursday morning July 28 from Space Launch Comple-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

In an uncommon move, ULA and the military have announced the launch time is 8:37 a.m. EDT.

Virtually everything about the clandestine payload, its mission, purpose and goals are classified top secret.

The NRO is the government agency that runs a vast fleet of powerful orbital assets hosting a multitude of the most advanced, wide ranging and top secret capabilities.

The most recent NRO payload, known as NROL 37, was just launched by ULA last month on their Delta IV Heavy – the most powerful rocket in the world on June 11 – read my story here.

The excitement is building with the launch just a day away and visitors are checking into local area hotels hoping for a magnificent show from the venerable Atlas rocket with a perfect record of launch performance.

ULA managers completed the Launch Readiness Review and everything “is on track for launch.”

So you can now plan your day and watch Thursday’s launch live via a ULA broadcast which starts 20 minutes prior to the given launch time at 8:17 a.m. EDT.

Webcast links: http://bit.ly/nrol61

Or: www.youtube.com/unitedlaunchalliance

Better yet if you are free and mobile you can watch this truly impressive feat with your own eyes by making your way to the many excellent viewing locations surrounding Cape Canaveral in every direction.

Here’s the rather cool ULA mission art with a webcast link.

ULA Webcast info for launch of Atlas V NROL-61 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) on July 28, 2016.  Credit: ULA/NRO
ULA Webcast info for launch of Atlas V NROL-61 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) on July 28, 2016. Credit: ULA/NRO

The NROL-61 patch depicts a green lizard, Spike, riding an Atlas V launch vehicle from the Cape Canaveral AFS. Spike was chosen as the mission mascot.

Mission artwork for Atlas V NROL-61 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is painted on nose cone of Atlas V rocket and depicts a green lizard, Spike, riding an Atlas V  launch vehicle.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Mission artwork for Atlas V NROL-61 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is painted on nose cone of Atlas V rocket and depicts a green lizard, Spike, riding an Atlas V launch vehicle. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Florida weather outlook is looking quite promising at this time rather favorable. Air Force meteorologists are predicting an 80 percent chance of ‘GO’ with favorable weather conditions for Thursdays breakfast time blastoff.

The primary weather concern is for Cumulus Clouds.

In the event of a scrub delay for any reason, a backup launch opportunity exists on Friday, July 29. The weather odds are the same at 80% GO!

The rocket should put on a spectacular sky show since it is equipped with a pair of powerful solid rocket boosters spewing fire and an expanding plume of smoke and ash as is soars to orbit!

The Atlas rocket and payload were rolled put to launch pad 41 as planned Tuesday morning, July 26 – for a distance of about 1800 feet from the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) where the rocket and payload were assembled, out to the pad.

It is now visibly erect at the pad from a number of viewing locations including Titusville and Playalinda Beach – positioned in between four lightning masts for protection from lightening.

Here’s a detailed mission profile video describing the launch events:

The NROL-61 mission counts as ULA’s sixth launch of 2016 and the 109th overall since the company was founded in 2006.

A ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the NROL-61 satellite is poised for blastoff from the pad at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on July 28, 2016.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the NROL-61 satellite is poised for blastoff from the pad at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on July 28, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The 20 story tall Atlas V will launch in its 421 configuration – the same as what will be used for manned launches with the crewed Boeing ‘Starliner’ space taxi carrying astronaut crews to the International Space Station.

This will be the sixth Atlas V to launch in the 421 configuration.

The Atlas 421 vehicle includes a 4-meter diameter payload fairing and two solid rocket boosters that augment the first stage. The Atlas booster for this mission was powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine and the Centaur upper stage was powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine.

The RD-180 burns RP-1 (Rocket Propellant-1 or highly purified kerosene) and liquid oxygen and delivers 860,200 lb of thrust at sea level.

The strap on solids deliver approximately 500,000 pounds of thrust.

The solids will be jettisoned about 2 minutes after liftoff

The possible roles for the reconnaissance payload include signals intelligence, eavesdropping, imaging and spectroscopic observations, early missile warnings and much more.

The NRO was formed in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik and secretly created on September 6, 1961.

“The purpose is overseeing all satellite and overflight reconnaissance projects whether overt or covert. The existence of the organization is no longer classified today, but we’re still pressing to perform the functions necessary to keep American citizens safe,” according to the official NRO website.

Watch for Ken’s continuing on site reports direct from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the Kennedy Space Center and the ULA Atlas launch pad.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about SLS and Orion crew vehicle, SpaceX CRS-9 rocket launch, ISS, ULA Atlas and Delta rockets, Juno at Jupiter, Orbital ATK Antares & Cygnus, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

July 27-28: “ULA Atlas V NRO Spysat launch July 28, SpaceX launch to ISS on CRS-9, SLS, Orion, Juno at Jupiter, ULA Delta 4 Heavy NRO spy satellite, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

SpaceX Midnight Launch Carrying Crucial Docking Port and Science to ISS Set for July 18, Plus Loud Land Landing – Watch Live

SpaceX conducts Falcon 9 Dragon CRS-9 mission static fire test ahead of planned 18 July 2016 liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on 18 July 2016 at 12:45 a.m. EDT.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX conducts Falcon 9 Dragon CRS-9 mission static fire test ahead of planned 18 July 2016 liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:45 a.m. EDT. View from atop Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – The outlook is outstanding for a dramatic midnight blastoff of the next SpaceX commercial cargo Dragon jam packed with some 5000 pounds of critical payloads and research supplies for NASA and heading to the space station on Monday, July 18 – that also simultaneously features an experimental land landing that promises to rock loudly across the Florida space coast and one day slash launch costs.

Dragon is carrying a crucial crew docking port absolutely essential for conducting future human space missions to the orbiting outpost as well as a host of wide ranging science experiments essential for NASA exploiting the space environment for research in low earth orbit and deep space exploration.

Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in its upgraded, full thrust version and the Dragon CRS-9 resupply ship is targeted for 12:45 a.m. EDT Monday, July 18, from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The International Docking Adapter-2 was tested in the Space Station Processing Facility prior to being loaded for launch into space on the SpaceX CRS-9 mission set for July 18, 2016 from Cape Canaveral, Fl.  Credits: NASA
The International Docking Adapter-2 was tested in the Space Station Processing Facility prior to being loaded for launch into space on the SpaceX CRS-9 mission set for July 18, 2016 from Cape Canaveral, Fl. Credits: NASA

The CRS-9 mission is to support the resident six-person crew of men and women currently working on the station from the US, Russia and Japan.

Spectators are filling local area hotels in anticipation of a spectacular double whammy sky show comprising a thunderous nighttime launch streaking to orbit – followed minutes later by a brilliant rocket flash and night landing back at the Cape of the Falcon first stage that will send sonic booms roaring all around the coast and surrounding inland areas.

SpaceX has confirmed they are attempting the secondary mission of landing the 156 foot tall first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket on land at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Landing Zone 1, located a few miles south of launch pad 40.

The weather and technical outlook for the 229 foot-tall (70 meter) Falcon 9 looks fantastic at this time, a day before liftoff.

The official weather forecast from Air Force meteorologists with the 45th Space Wing calls for a 90 percent chance of “GO” with extremely favorable conditions at launch time for liftoff of this upgraded, SpaceX Falcon 9.

The only concerns are for Cumulus clouds building up and a chance of precipitation.

And for added stargazers delight the night sky features a full moon.

The SpaceX/Dragon CRS-9 launch coverage will be broadcast on NASA TV beginning at 11:30 p.m. EDT Sunday, July 17, with additional commentary on the NASA launch blog.

SpaceX will also feature their own live webcast beginning approximately 20 minutes before launch at 12:25 a.m. EDT Monday, July 18

You can watch the launch live at NASA TV at – http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

You can watch the launch live at SpaceX Webcast at – spacex.com/webcast

The launch window is instantaneous, meaning that any delays due to weather or technical issues will results in a minimum 2 day postponement.

If the launch does not occur Monday, a backup launch opportunity exists on 12 a.m. Wednesday, July 20, just seconds after midnight, with NASA TV coverage starting at 10:45 p.m. EDT Tuesday, July 19.

View of International Docking Adapter 2 (IDA-2) being processed inside the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF) at NASA Kennedy Space Center for eventual launch to the ISS in the trunk of a SpaceX Dragon on the CRS-9 mission. It will be connected to the station to provide a port for Commercial Crew spacecraft carrying astronauts to dock to the orbiting laboratory as soon as 2017.  The identical IDA-1 was destroyed during SpaceX CRS-7 launch failure on June 28, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View of International Docking Adapter 2 (IDA-2) being processed inside the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF) at NASA Kennedy Space Center for eventual launch to the ISS in the trunk of a SpaceX Dragon on the CRS-9 mission. It will be connected to the station to provide a port for Commercial Crew spacecraft carrying astronauts to dock to the orbiting laboratory as soon as 2017. The identical IDA-1 was destroyed during SpaceX CRS-7 launch failure on June 28, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CRS-9 marks only the second time SpaceX has attempted a land landing of the 15 story tall first stage booster.

The history making first time took place at Landing Zone 1 (LZ 1) on Dec. 22, 2015 as part of the ORBCOMM-2 mission. Landing Zone 1 is built on the former site of Space Launch Complex 13, a U.S. Air Force rocket and missile testing range.

SpaceX also successfully recovered first stages three times in a row at sea this year on an ocean going drone ship barge using the company’s OCISLY Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) on April 8, May 6 and May 27.

SpaceX issued a statement describing how local area residents could hear sonic booms – similar to those heard during landings of NASA’s space shuttles.

“There is the possibility that residents of northern and central Brevard County, Fla. may hear one or more sonic booms during landing. A sonic boom is a brief thunder-like noise a person on the ground hears when an aircraft or other vehicle flies overhead faster than the speed of sound,” said SpaceX.

Who could be affected?

“Residents of the communities of Cape Canaveral, Cocoa, Cocoa Beach, Courtenay, Merritt Island, Mims, Port Canaveral, Port St. John, Rockledge, Scottsmoor, Sharpes, and Titusville in Brevard County, Fla. are most likely to hear a sonic boom, although what residents experience will depend on weather conditions and other factors.”

The sights and sound are certain to be thrilling- so catch it if you can!

CRS-9 counts as the company’s ninth scheduled flight to deliver supplies, science experiments and technology demonstrations to the International Space Station (ISS).

The CRS-9 mission is for the crews of Expeditions 48 and 49 to support dozens of the approximately 250 science and research investigations in progress under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

SpaceX engineers conducted their standard static fire hold down test of the first stages Merlin 1D engines with the rocket erect at pad 40, this morning Saturday, July 16.

The customary test lasts a few seconds and was conducted with the Dragon bolted on top at about 9:30 a.m. I saw the test while visiting atop neighboring Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center – see photo.

“All looks good,” reported Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX vice president of Flight Reliability, at a media briefing this afternoon.

“We expect a GO for launch.”

Dragon will reach its preliminary orbit about 10 minutes after launch. Then it will deploy its solar arrays and begin a carefully choreographed series of thruster firings to reach the space station.

If all goes well, Dragon will arrive at the orbiting outpost on Wednesday, July 20, after a 2 day orbital chase.

NASA astronaut Jeff Williams will then reach out with the station’s 57.7-foot-long Canadian-built robotic arm to grapple and capture the private Dragon cargo ship working from a robotics work station in the station’s cupola. NASA astronaut Kate Rubins will serve as Williams backup. She just arrived at the station last week on July 9 for a minimum 4 month stay, after launching to orbit on a Russian Soyuz on July 6 with two additional crew mates.

Ground commands will be sent from Houston to the station’s arm to install Dragon on the Earth-facing bottom side of the Harmony module for its stay at the space station. The crew expects to open the hatch a day later after pressurizing the vestibule in the forward bulkhead between the station and Dragon.

Live coverage of the rendezvous and capture July 20 will begin at 5:30 a.m. on NASA TV, with installation coverage set to begin at 9:45 a.m.

An illustration of how the IDA will look when attached to the International Space Station. Credits: NASA
An illustration of how the IDA will look when attached to the International Space Station.
Credits: NASA

Perhaps the most critical payload relating to the future of humans in space is the 1,020-pound international docking adapter known as IDA-2 or International Docking Adapter-2.

Here’s an early morning video view of Falcon 9 on the pad today.

Video Caption: Early morning shots of CRS-9 ready for flight on Monday July 18 at 12:45 AM. Credit: USLaunchReport

Watch for Ken’s onsite CRS-9 mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about Juno at Jupiter, SpaceX CRS-9 rocket launch, ISS, ULA Atlas and Delta rockets, Orbital ATK Cygnus, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

July 15-18: “SpaceX launches to ISS on CRS-9, Juno at Jupiter, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Former astronaut Bob Cabana, director of NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, surveys the IDA-2 inside the Space Station Processing Facility.  Credits: NASA
Former astronaut Bob Cabana, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, surveys the IDA-2 inside the Space Station Processing Facility. Credits: NASA
SpaceX Dragon CRS-9 mission logo. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Dragon CRS-9 mission logo. Credit: SpaceX

7 Days Out From Orbital Insertion, NASA’s Juno Images Jupiter and its Largest Moons

This annotated color view of Jupiter and its four largest moons -- Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto -- was taken by the JunoCam camera on NASA's Juno spacecraft on June 21, 2016, at a distance of 6.8 million miles (10.9 million kilometers) from Jupiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This annotated color view of Jupiter and its four largest moons — Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto — was taken by the JunoCam camera on NASA’s Juno spacecraft on June 21, 2016, at a distance of 6.8 million miles (10.9 million kilometers) from Jupiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Now just 7 days out from a critical orbital insertion burn, NASA’s Jupiter-bound Juno orbiter is closing in fast on the massive gas giant. And as its coming into focus the spacecraft has begun snapping a series of beautiful images of the biggest planet and its biggest moons.

In a newly released color image snapped by the probes educational public outreach camera named Junocam, banded Jupiter dominates a spectacular scene that includes the giant planet’s four largest moons — Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

Junocam’s image of the approaching Jovian system was taken on June 21, 2016, at a distance of 6.8 million miles (10.9 million kilometers) and hints at the multitude of photos and science riches to come from Juno.

“Juno on Jupiter’s Doorstep,” says a NASA description. “And the alternating light and dark bands of the planet’s clouds are just beginning to come into view,” revealing its “distinctive swirling bands of orange, brown and white.”

This color view of Jupiter and its four largest moons -- Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto -- was taken by the JunoCam camera on NASA's Juno spacecraft on June 21, 2016, at a distance of 6.8 million miles (10.9 million kilometers) from Jupiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This color view of Jupiter and its four largest moons — Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto — was taken by the JunoCam camera on NASA’s Juno spacecraft on June 21, 2016, at a distance of 6.8 million miles (10.9 million kilometers) from Jupiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Rather appropriately for an American space endeavor, the fate of the entire mission hinges on do or die ‘Independence Day’ fireworks.

On the evening of July 4, Juno must fire its main engine for 35 minutes.

The Joy of JOI – or Jupiter Orbit Insertion – will place NASA’s robotic explorer into a polar orbit around the gas giant.

The approach over the north pole is unlike earlier probes that approached from much lower latitudes nearer the equatorial zone, and thus provide a perspective unlike any other.

After a five-year and 2.8 Billion kilometer (1.7 Billion mile) outbound trek to the Jovian system and the largest planet in our solar system and an intervening Earth flyby speed boost, the moment of truth for Juno is now inexorably at hand.

This colorized composite shows more than half of Earth’s disk over the coast of Argentina and the South Atlantic Ocean as the Juno probe slingshotted by on Oct. 9, 2013 for a gravity assisted acceleration to Jupiter. The mosaic was assembled from raw images taken by the Junocam imager. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
This colorized composite shows more than half of Earth’s disk over the coast of Argentina and the South Atlantic Ocean as the Juno probe slingshotted by on Oct. 9, 2013 for a gravity assisted acceleration to Jupiter. The mosaic was assembled from raw images taken by the Junocam imager. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

And preparations are in full swing by the science and engineering team to ensure a spectacular Fourth of July fireworks display.

The team has been in contact with Juno 24/7 since June 11 and already uplinked the rocket firing parameters.

Signals traveling at the speed of light take 10 minutes to reach Earth.

The protective cover that shields Juno’s main engine from micrometeorites and interstellar dust was opened on June 20.

“And the software program that will command the spacecraft through the all-important rocket burn was uplinked,” says NASA.

The pressurization of the propulsion system is set for June 28.

“We have over five years of spaceflight experience and only 10 days to Jupiter orbit insertion,” said Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement.

“It is a great feeling to put all the interplanetary space in the rearview mirror and have the biggest planet in the solar system in our windshield.”

On the night of orbital insertion, Juno will fly within 2,900 miles (4,667 kilometers) of the Jovian cloud tops.

All instruments except those critical for the JOI insertion burn on July 4, will be tuned off on June 29. That includes shutting down Junocam.

“If it doesn’t help us get into orbit, it is shut down,” said Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

“That is how critical this rocket burn is. And while we will not be getting images as we make our final approach to the planet, we have some interesting pictures of what Jupiter and its moons look like from five-plus million miles away.”

During a 20 month long science mission – entailing 37 orbits lasting 11 days each – the probe will plunge to within about 3000 miles of the turbulent cloud tops and collect unprecedented new data that will unveil the hidden inner secrets of Jupiter’s origin and evolution.

“Jupiter is the Rosetta Stone of our solar system,” says Bolton. “It is by far the oldest planet, contains more material than all the other planets, asteroids and comets combined and carries deep inside it the story of not only the solar system but of us. Juno is going there as our emissary — to interpret what Jupiter has to say.”

During the orbits, Juno will probe beneath the obscuring cloud cover of Jupiter and study its auroras to learn more about the planet’s origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere.

Junocam has already taken some striking images during the Earth flyby gravity assist speed boost on Oct. 9, 2013.

For example the dazzling portrait of our Home Planet high over the South American coastline and the Atlantic Ocean.

For a hint of what’s to come, see our colorized Junocam mosaic of land, sea and swirling clouds, created by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.

NASA's Juno probe captured the image data for this composite picture during its Earth flyby on Oct. 9 over Argentina,  South America and the southern Atlantic Ocean. Raw imagery was reconstructed and aligned by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo, and false-color blue has been added to the view taken by a near-infrared filter that is typically used to detect methane. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s Juno probe captured the image data for this composite picture during its Earth flyby on Oct. 9 over Argentina, South America and the southern Atlantic Ocean. Raw imagery was reconstructed and aligned by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo, and false-color blue has been added to the view taken by a near-infrared filter that is typically used to detect methane. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

As Juno sped over Argentina, South America and the South Atlantic Ocean it came within 347 miles (560 kilometers) of Earth’s surface.

During the flyby, the science team observed Earth using most of Juno’s nine science instruments since the slingshot also serves as an important dress rehearsal and key test of the spacecraft’s instruments, systems and flight operations teams.

Juno soars skyward to Jupiter on Aug. 5, 2011 from launch pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 12:25 p.m. EDT. View from the VAB roof. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Juno soars skyward to Jupiter on Aug. 5, 2011 from launch pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 12:25 p.m. EDT. View from the VAB roof. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The $1.1 Billion Juno was launched on Aug. 5, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida atop the most powerful version of the Atlas V rocket augmented by 5 solid rocket boosters and built by United Launch Alliance (ULA). That same Atlas V 551 version just launched MUOS-5 for the US Navy on June 24.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Ken Kremer

Juno spacecraft and its science instruments. Image credit: NASA/JPL
Juno spacecraft and its science instruments. Image credit: NASA/JPL
Juno graphic
Juno orbital graphic