Musk’s Era of Routinely Re-flown Rockets (ala SpaceX) a ‘Major Sea Change Getting Closer Every Day’ Says SES CTO Halliwell: SES-11 Launch Gallery

SpaceX Falcon 9 recycled rocket lifts off at sunset at 6:53 PM EDT on 11 Oct 2017 carrying SES-11/EchoStar 105 HDTV commercial comsat to geosynchronous transfer orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, FL- as seen from the pad perimeter. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Elon Musk’s extraordinary vision of an era when re-flown rockets are offered as a ‘routine service’ rather than the exception is a ‘major sea change getting closer’ to fruition with each passing day thanks to SpaceX, said SES CTO Martin Halliwell in an exclusive interview with Universe Today, following the stunning sunset blastoff of the SES-11 UHDTV commercial satellite on another ‘flight-proven’ Falcon 9 booster that also re-landed – thus completing another remarkable round of rocket recovery and recycling or ‘launch, land and relaunch!’

“As I’ve said before, I think in a couple years time you won’t even consider whether it’s a preflown rocket or a new rocket or a second time rocket,” SES Chief Technology Officer Martin Halliwell told Universe Today in a one-on-one post launch interview.

“It will just be a flight and you will buy a service to get to orbit – and that will be that!”

“It’s a major sea change,” Halliwell explained. “That’s absolutely true.”

“We’re getting closer to that every day. It’s exactly where we are going. There is no doubt about it.”

The private SES-11/EchoStar 105 communications satellite mission soared to space with an on time liftoff of the recycled SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage at dinnertime Wednesday Oct. 11 at 6:53 p.m. EDT from seaside Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

SpaceX Falcon 9 recycled rocket lifts off at sunset at 6:53 PM EDT on 11 Oct 2017 carrying SES-11/EchoStar 105 HDTV commercial comsat to geosynchronous transfer orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, FL- as seen from inside the pad perimeter. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

“The launch was fantastic,” Halliwell gushed. “Everything went perfectly. The countdown went perfectly, no hiccups, no drama, nothing whatsoever. So we were good to go!”

Plus its saving SES “months of time” and thereby “tens of millions of dollars of real money” to fly with a used booster rather than having their expensive satellite sit and languish uselessly on the ground.

SES-11/EchoStar 105 launch on SpaceX Falcon 9 on 11 Oct 2017 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, FL. Credit: Julian Leek

SES-11 is primarily intended to significantly upgrade SES capabilities to transmit Ultra High Definition (UHD) TV signals or 4 K vs. standard HDTV – thereby pulling in more revenue streams.

SES made rocket history jointly with SpaceX earlier this year when they became the first company ever to agree to fly a payload on a recycled liquid fueled rocket that SpaceX’s billionaire CEO Elon Musk dubs ‘flight-proven’.

And Halliwell, as SES Chief Technology Officer, was instrumental in partnering with SpaceX CEO Musk to take a big leap make that happen.

The maiden ‘used’ Falcon 9 lifted off successfully with the SES-10 satellite and delivered the comsat to geostationary orbit on March 30, 2017 – in a monumental space achievement.

SpaceX Falcon 9 recycled rocket lifts off at sunset at 6:53 PM EDT on 11 Oct 2017 carrying SES-11/EchoStar 105 HDTV commercial comsat to geosynchronous transfer orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, FL- as seen from inside the pad perimeter. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

“This was our second reflown mission with SpaceX for SES-11. And we had a lot of discussion about it.”

“The more that we looked at it and the transparency we’ve gotten from SpaceX, working together with them we were convinced of the ‘flight worthiness’ of the Falcon 9 vehicle,” Halliwell told me.

SpaceX successfully delivered the 5.7 ton EchoStar 105/SES-11 joint mission satellite for SES and EchoStar to geostationary transfer orbit some 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometers) above the equator.

SES-11/EchoStar 105 launch on SpaceX Falcon 9 on 11 Oct 2017 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, FL. Credit: Dawn Leek Taylor

EchoStar 105/SES-11 is a high-powered hybrid Ku and C-band communications satellite launching as a dual-mission satellite for US-based operator EchoStar and Luxembourg-based operator SES.

How exactly does Halliwell and SES assess whether its worth taking a gamble on a ‘flight-proven’ booster to ensure it meets the high standards expected and really is robust and reliable and not end in disaster? How did the booster fare after the first reflown mission for SES-10?

Halliwell explained that SES employs a team of engineers embedded with SpaceX.

“We have US citizens who work embedded with SpaceX,” Halliwell replied. “They can understand and filter and react to that data they are exposed to and see what’s going on. And then determine if we are good to go or not.”

Why did SES decide on using a pre-flown booster?

“We sat down with SpaceX to see how the launch manifest and scheduling looks and asked whats the best way we can get SES-11 to orbit? Do we wait for new equipment or does SpaceX have preflown equipment that you can make available to us after refurbishment?”

“It came out that the fastest way we can get to orbit is by using a refurbished preflown vehicle. So we said OK we will go down that path. And that’s why we are here today.”

Did it save time or money for SES to go with a used booster?

“It saved us a few months. So we concentrated on the preflown booster after making that decision. For sure if we had chosen to use a new booster our SES-11 launch would have been somewhat later compared to launching today.”

So it turns out that SES got a faster trip to orbit for SES-11 and that in turn quickly translates into real money generated instead of more money wasted with a satellite parked somewhere in a storage shed for half a year of more. The actual savings on a launch was not that big.

“The average launch delay we have right now is about 7 months,” Halliwell explained.

“So we have the spacecraft already built and its ready, and ready to ship [to the launch site]. And then – we just wait! Until we have launch vehicle availability.”

“So think about it. I spent all my money on my spacecraft and most of my money on my launch vehicle. Plus a whole chunk of insurance money is already gone.”

“So I’m sitting there for 7 months. It’s just cash out and a very expensive wait!”

How much money does waiting around on the ground with a fully ready to launch spacecraft cost?

“That works out to tens of millions of dollars lost due to delays,” he replied. “Its real money. A ton of money!”

“Revenue we are not making. And paying for the money you spent. It’s gone !”

So with SES-11 now safely in orbit it will soon be generating revenue to recoup all the investments thus far accrued.

Is the era of reliable rocket reusability coming even sooner than some had expected?

“I think so certainly for SpaceX,” Halliwell responded.

“The other companies are all now running behind. You look towards Ariane with the reusable Prometheus and being cheaper – but there is a ways to go there. You look at Blue Origin and they are making progress. But they are not there yet.”

“Will Vulcan do this? I think everybody will consider this, and try to figure out the pros and cons of this and try to figure out an industrial model and a financial model, etc, etc.”

“Whether they go down that reusability path or not depends on whether it suits their business plan.”

“SpaceX has certainly taken a very, very difficult road. But they have come through it very well.”

Is SpaceX actually saving money? The company sunk huge sums of its own money amounting into the hundreds of millions of dollars to develop the reusability technology.

The advertised cost of a SpaceX launch is about $61 million.

Elon Musk routinely promotes the reusability technology as a means to drastically reduce space launch costs.

Thus SES CEO Karim Michel Sabbagh is looking for a reduction to about half that advertised price, in the neighborhood of $30 million.

To date Musk has only offered a marginal reduction to the contact price, citing the high development costs.

Musk has even joked that he should charge more for a reliable ‘flight-proven’ booster.

Halliwell says the real benefit thus far is the earlier launch date. SpaceX has a huge backlog of over 50 contracted launches that only grew longer following a pair of rocket explosions that forced launch delays while the firm investigated root causes.

What does Halliwell think is realistic regarding pricing and achieving the $30 million target?

“I’d love to see that,” Halliwell told me. “But I don’t think we’ll see that $30 million any time soon. Maybe it will stabilize in the mid $50 millions or $60 millions somewhere. I think that’s realistic.”

“I think we have to see how people like SpaceX work on their industrial/financial model.”

“To be honest, I think SpaceX themselves is trying to figure out where the pricing should be. How much is it really costing them? How much is the refurb costing them? How much are their ops costing?”

To date SpaceX has accomplished 18 successful landings of a recovered Falcon 9 first stage booster by land and by sea.

The first stage stands 156 feet tall.

SpaceX Falcon 9 Booster leaning atop OCISLY droneship upon which it landed after 23 June launch from KSC floats into Port Canaveral, FL, on 29 June 2017, hauled by tugboat as seen from Jetty Park Pier. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch this SES-11 launch video:

Video caption: Reused Falcon 9 Launches SES-11 Into Sunset (Remote Cameras). Credit: Jeff Seibert

Stay tuned. More upcoming.

Sunset blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 recycled rocket at 6:53 PM EDT on 11 Oct 2017 carrying SES-11/EchoStar 105 HD TV commercial comsat to geosynchronous transfer orbit from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, FL- as seen from the famous countdown clock. This launch counts as third reflight of a liquid fueled orbit class rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite coverage of SpaceX SES-11, ULA NROL-52 and NASA and space 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

SES-11/EchoStar 105 launch on SpaceX Falcon 9 on 11 Oct 2017 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, FL. Credit: Julian Leek

SpaceX Dragon Splashes Down in Pacific with 2 Tons of NASA Space Station Science

The SpaceX Dragon (far right) begins its departure from the International Space Station after being released from the grips of the Canadarm2 robotic arm on Sept. 17, 2017. Credit: NASA TV

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Concluding a month long stay at the International Space Station (ISS) a SpaceX Dragon cargo freighter loaded with some two tons of NASA research samples, hardware and micestonauts returned home to make a successful splashdown in the Pacific on Sunday, Sept. 17.

The SpaceX Dragon CRS-12 resupply ship successfully splashed down in the Pacific Ocean at approximately 10:14 a.m. EDT, 7:14 a.m. PDT, 1414 GMT Sunday, southwest of Long Beach, California, under a trio of main parachutes.

The parachute assisted splashdown marked the end of the company’s twelfth contracted cargo resupply mission to the orbiting outpost for NASA.

The capsule returned with more than 3,800 pounds (1,700 kg) of cargo and research and 20 live mice.

“Good splashdown of Dragon confirmed, completing its 12th mission to and from the @Space_Station,” SpaceX confirmed via twitter.

The SpaceX Dragon CRS-12 spacecraft begins its departure from the International Space Station after being released from the grips of the Canadarm2 robotic arm on Sept. 17, 2017. Credit: NASA TV

Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying Dragon CRS-12 to orbit took place from seaside pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Aug. 14 at 12:31 p.m. EDT (1631 GMT).

After a two day orbital chase Dragon had been berthed at the station since arriving on Aug. 16.

SpaceX launched its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Dragon’s departure began early Sunday morning when Expedition 53 Flight Engineer Paolo Nespoli of ESA (European Space Agency) and ISS Commander Randy Bresnik of NASA released the Dragon spacecraft from the grips of the Canadarm2 robotic arm at 4:40 a.m. EDT, 1:40 a.m. PDT, 840 GMT.

The departure events were carried live on NASA TV. There was no live broadcast of the Pacific Ocean landing.

Working from a robotics work station inside the seven windowed domed Cupola module Nespoli and Bresnik used the station’s 57.7-foot-long (17.6 meter-long) Canadian-built robotic arm to detach Dragon from the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module and release it into space.

“We would like to give a big thanks to all the operational teams around the world that keep our presence in space possible – to the scientists and engineers that provide the outstanding research and equipment that we have in space, to NASA and all the space agencies that contribute to the space station. And to SpaceX for giving us this outstanding vehicle,” Nespoli radioed.

Dragon then backed away slowly via a trio of thruster firings.

“The three departure burns to move Dragon away from the @Space_Station are complete,” SpaceX confirmed.

The departure of the SpaceX Dragon Sunday morning, Sept. 17, 2017 leaves three spaceships parked at the space station including the Progress 67 resupply ship and the Soyuz MS-05 and MS-06 crew ships. Credit: NASA

The final de-orbit burn took place as planned around 9 a.m. EDT some four and a half hours after leaving the station and setting Dragon up for the scorching reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

“Dragon’s de-orbit burn is complete and trunk has been jettisoned. Pacific Ocean splashdown in ~30 minutes,” said SpaceX.

All the drogue and main parachutes deployed as planned during the descent to Earth.

“Dragon’s three main parachutes have been deployed.”

SpaceX commercial naval ships were on standby to retrieve the spacecraft from the ocean and sail it back to port in Long Beach, California.

Some time critical research specimens will be removed immediately for return to NASA. The remainder will be transported back with Dragon to SpaceX’s test facility in McGregor, Texas, for final post flight processing and handover to NASA.

“A variety of technological and biological studies are returning in Dragon. NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the non-profit organization that manages research aboard the U.S. national laboratory portion of the space station, will receive time-sensitive samples and begin working with researchers to process and distribute them within 48 hours,” said NASA in a statement.

The Dragon resupply ship dubbed Dragon CRS-12 counts as SpaceX’s twelfth contracted commercial resupply services (CRS) mission to the International Space Station for NASA since 2012.

SpaceX holds a NASA commercial resupply services (CRS) contract that includes up to 20 missions under the original CRS-1 contract.

The 20-foot high, 12-foot-diameter Dragon CRS-12 vessel carried more than 6,400 pounds ( 2,900 kg) of science experiments and research instruments, crew supplies, food water, clothing, hardware, gear and spare parts to the million pound orbiting laboratory complex when it launched Aug. 14 from KSC pad 39A.

20 mice were also onboard and were returned alive on the round trip flight.

This mission supported dozens of the 250 research investigations and experiments being conducted by Expedition 52 and 53 crew members – including NASA’s space endurance record breaking astronaut Peggy Whitson.

The Cosmic-Ray Energetics and Mass investigation (CREAM) instrument from the University of Maryland, College Park involves placing a balloon-borne instrument aboard the International Space Station to measure the charges of cosmic rays over a period of three years. CREAM will be attached to the Japanese Experiment Module Exposed Facility. Existing CREAM hardware used for balloon flights. Credit: NASA

Whitson returned to Earth in a Soyuz capsule earlier this month following a 10 month mission and carried out research included in the samples returned by Dragon CRS-12.

Visiting vehicle configuration at the International Space Station (ISS) after arrival of the Soyuz MS-06 spacecraft on Sept. 12, 2017. Credit: NASA

Here’s a NASA science summary:

The Lung Tissue experiment used the microgravity environment of space to test strategies for growing new lung tissue. The ultimate goal of this investigation is to produce bioengineered human lung tissue that can be used as a predictive model of human responses allowing for the study of lung development, lung physiology or disease pathology.

Samples from the CASIS PCG 7 study used the orbiting laboratory’s microgravity environment to grow larger versions of an important protein implicated in Parkinson’s disease. Developed by the Michael J. Fox Foundation, Anatrace and Com-Pac International, researchers will look to take advantage of the station’s microgravity environment which allows protein crystals to grow larger and in more perfect shapes than earth-grown crystals, allowing them to be better analyzed on Earth. Defining the exact shape and morphology of LRRK2 would help scientists to better understand the pathology of Parkinson’s and aid in the development of therapies against this target.

Mice from NASA’s Rodent Research-9 study also will return live to Earth for additional study. The investigation combined three studies into one mission, with two looking at how microgravity affects blood vessels in the brain and in the eyes and the third looking at cartilage loss in hip and knee joints. For humans on Earth, research related to limited mobility and degrading joints can help scientists understand how arthritis develops, and a better understanding of the visual impairments experienced by astronauts can help identify causes and treatments for eye disorders.

The next SpaceX Dragon is due to blastoff around December from KSC.

An Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo ship is slated to launch in November from NASA Wallops in Virginia.

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite NASA 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

Ground landing of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage at Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) after SpaceX launched its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida from pad 39A at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com
The Soyuz MS-06 rocket blasts off with the Expedition 53-54 crew towards the International Space Station from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017 (Wednesday, Sept. 13, Kazakh time). Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Secret X-37B Military Mini-Shuttle Set for SpaceX Blastoff/Landing Sept. 7 as Cat 5 Hurricane Irma Forces Florida State of Emergency – Watch Live

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket rolls horizontally up incline at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 6 Sept. 2017. The rocket is being processed for liftoff of the X-37B OTV-5 mini-shuttle mission scheduled for Sept. 7, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Although its far from sunny in the so called ‘Sunshine State’ the secret X-37B military mini-shuttle is set for a SpaceX blastoff and booster landing combo Thursday, Sept. 7 – even as the looming threat from Cat 5 Hurricane Irma forced Florida’s Governor to declare a statewide ‘State of Emergency.’

Launch preparations were in full swing today on Florida’s Space Coast for liftoff of the hi tech USAF X-37B reusable spaceplane- hoping to escape to orbit for the first time atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and just in the nick of time tomorrow, before the impending threat of monster storm Irma potentially lashes the launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in the center of the states long peninsula.

Hurricane Irma Cone forecast on Sept 7, 2017 from the National Hurricane Center. Credit: NHC

Irma is packing winds of 185 mph and one of the strongest Atlantic storms ever. It is being closely tracked in incredibly high resolution by the new NASA/NOAA GOES-16 (GOES-R) satellite launched late last year on a ULA Atlas V in Nov 2016.

I witnessed the entire SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and payload stack being rolled horizontally up the incline to the top of Launch Complex 39A late this afternoon, Sept. 6, during our media visit for up-close camera setup.

Up close head on view of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket rolling horizontally up incline at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 6 Sept. 2017. The rocket is being processed for liftoff of the X-37B OTV-5 mini-shuttle mission scheduled for Sept. 7, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Rather remarkably the relatively dismal weather forecast has brightened considerably in the final hours leading to Thursday’s scheduled launch and the forecast heavy rain showers and thunder have dissipated in the time remaining between now and liftoff.

The X-37B reusable mini-shuttle is a secretive technology testing spaceplane flying on its fifth mission overall.

Up close side view of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and nose cone housing the X-37B OTV-5 spaceplane slated for liftoff from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 7, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The path to launch was cleared following the successful engine test firing of the Falcon 9 first stage I witnessed late last week, Thursday afternoon, Aug. 30.

During the hold down static fire test all nine Merlin 9 stage engine were ignited and fired up to full throttle for several seconds. See my static fire story here.

SpaceX conducts successful static fire test of the Falcon 9 first stage rocket at 4:30 p.m. EDT on Aug. 31, 2017 on Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fl., as seen from nearby Playalinda causeway. Liftoff of the USAF X-37B OTV-5 mini-shuttle mission is scheduled for Sept. 7, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Although the exact launch time remains a closely guarded U.S. Air Force secret, liftoff of the X-37B is slated to occur sometime during a 5 hour long window.

The launch window for the X-37B on the OTV-5 mission opens at 9:50 a.m. EDT (13:50 UTC) and spans until 2:55 p.m. EDT (18:55 UTC) Sept. 7 from seaside Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

SpaceX will offer their own live webcast beginning approximately 15 minutes before launch starting at about 9:35 a.m. EDT.

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

In the event of delay for any reason, the next launch opportunity is Friday, Sept 8 at approximately the same time and window.

However amidst the heavy duty Hurricane Irma preparations all around, nothing is certain. Local area schools in Brevard County have closed and local residents are preparing their homes and apartments to hunker down, buying food and essentials putting up storm shutters, topping off gas and energy supplies and more.

“If for any reason we cannot launch tomorrow we will reevaluate whether or not we can still support another attempt on Friday, said Wayne R. Monteith, Brig Gen, USAF, Commander, 45th Space Wing.

The weather forecast overall is about 50% chance of favorable conditions at launch time according to U.S. Air Force meteorologists with the 45th Space Wing Weather Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base. But the opportunity varies within the long window and the exact launch time is currently classified.

“Hurricane Irma is forecast to be approximately 900 miles southeast of the Spaceport during Thursday’s launch attempt, so while Irma certainly bears watching, the stalled boundary will be the main factor in Thursday’s weather,” noted the 45th Space Wing Weather Squadron.

The primary concerns on Sept. 7 are for cumulus clouds and for thick clouds in the flight path.

The odds drop to 40% favorable for the 24 hour scrub turnaround day on Friday, Sept 8

The USAF X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is set for blastoff on Sept. 7, 2017, onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo: Boeing/USAF

Everything is currently on track for Thursday’s launch of the 230 foot tall SpaceX Falcon 9 on the X-37B OTV-5 mission.

“The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office is undergoing final launch preparations for the fifth mission of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle [OTV],” the Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs announced. “The OTV is scheduled to launch on Sept. 7, 2017, onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket rolls horizontally up incline at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 6 Sept. 2017 ahead of liftoff of the X-37B OTV-5 spaceplane mission on Sept. 7, 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

The X-37B will be launched for the fifth time on the OTV-5 mission atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 on Sept. 7 from Launch Complex 39A on the Kennedy Space Center Florida into low Earth orbit.

The Boeing-built X-37B is processed for flight at KSC using refurbished NASA space shuttle processing facilities now dedicated to the reusable mini-shuttle, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV). It launches vertically like a satellite but lands horizontally like an airplane and functions as a reliable and reusable space test platform for the U.S. Air Force.

The OTV-5 mission marks the first launch of an X-37B spaceplane by SpaceX.

All four prior OTV missions launched on the United Launch Alliance Atlas V and ended with runway landings in either California or Florida.

“The many firsts on this mission make the upcoming OTV launch a milestone for the program,” said Randy Walden, the director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.

“It is our goal to continue advancing the X-37B OTV so it can more fully support the growing space community.”

Ground landing of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage at Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) after SpaceX launched its 12th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida from pad 39A at 12:31 p.m. EDT on Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

SpaceX will also attempt another land landing of the 156-foot-tall Falcon 9 first stage back at Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) at the Cape.

The Falcon 9 first stage is equipped with a quartet of landing legs and grid fins to enable the rocket recycling plan.

Up close view of SpaceX Falcon 9 landing legs for the X-37B OTV-5 spaceplane slated for liftoff from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 7, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

This marks the 7th time SpaceX attempts a ground landing at the Cape.

The booster will touch down about 8 minutes after launch and generate multiple sonic booms screaming loudly across the surrounding region and beyond.

“The fifth OTV mission will also be launched into, and landed from, a higher inclination orbit than prior missions to further expand the X-37B’s orbital envelope.”

The daylight first stage precision guided landing should offer spectators a thrilling up close view of the rocket reusability technology envisioned by SpaceX’s billionaire CEO Elon Musk to drastically slash the high costs of launching to space.

Technicians work on the Air Force X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle 4, which landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida May 7, 2017. Credit: Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs.

The 11,000 pound (4990 kg) state-of -the art reusable OTV space plane is about a quarter the size of a NASA space shuttle. The vehicle measures 29 ft 3 in (8.9 m) in length with a wingspan of 14 ft 11 in (4.5 m).

The X-37B was originally developed by NASA but was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2004.

Since then most but not all of the spaceplane’s goals have been shrouded in secrecy.

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite X-37B OTV-5 and NASA 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

SpaceX Targets Dramatic Nighttime Falcon 9 Launch and Daring Cape Canaveral Landing on Dec. 21

A “significantly upgraded” SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket stands erect on the Florida space coast today, Sunday, Dec. 20, and is poised to make history Monday evening (Dec. 21) with a spectacular nighttime blast off and daring first ever surface landing attempt of the boosters first stage at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, that could be accompanied by sonic booms – if all goes well.

Dec 20 Update: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has just scrubbed for the day and reset launch to Monday, Dec. 21 and story is revised.

“Just reviewed mission params w SpaceX team. Monte Carlo runs show tmrw night has a 10% higher chance of a good landing. Punting 24 hrs,” Musk tweeted. Continue reading “SpaceX Targets Dramatic Nighttime Falcon 9 Launch and Daring Cape Canaveral Landing on Dec. 21”

Elon Musk Releases Dramatic Imagery of Mostly Successful Falcon 9 1st Recovery Attempt, Hard Landing on Drone Ship

Rocket hits hard at ~45 deg angle, smashing legs and engine section. Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk
See video below[/caption]

Dramatic new photos and video of the daring and mostly successful attempt by Space X to land their Falcon 9 booster on an ocean-going “drone ship” were released this morning, Friday, Jan. 16, by SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk.

Musk posted the imagery online via his twitter account and they vividly show just how close his team came to achieving total success in history’s first attempt to land and recover a rocket on a tiny platform in the ocean.

Here’s the video: “Close, but no cigar. This time.”

The rocket landing and recovery attempt was a secondary objective of SpaceX, that immediately followed the spectacular nighttime blastoff of the Falcon 9 on Jan. 10 carrying the SpaceX Dragon cargo freighter spacecraft on a critical resupply mission for NASA bound for the space station.

The history making attempt at recovering the Falcon 9 first stage was a first of its kind experiment to accomplish a pinpoint soft landing of a rocket onto a miniscule platform at sea using a rocket assisted descent by the first stage Merlin engines aided by steering fins.

The first stage rocket reached an altitude of over 100 miles after firing nine Merlins as planned for nearly three minutes. It had to be slowed from traveling at a velocity of about 2,900 mph (1300 m/s). The descent maneuver has been likened to someone balancing a rubber broomstick on their hand in the middle of a fierce wind storm.

The imagery shows the last moments of the descent as the rocket hits the edge of the drone ship at a 45 degree angle with its four landing legs extended and Merlin 1D engines firing.

Before impact, fins lose power and go hardover. Engines fights to restore, but … Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk
Before impact, fins lose power and go hardover. Engines fights to restore, but … Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk

Musk tweeted that the first stage Falcon 9 booster ran out of hydraulic fluid and thus hit the barge.

“Rocket hits hard at ~45 deg angle, smashing legs and engine section,” Musk explained today.

Lacking hydraulic fluid the boosters attached steering fins lost power just before impact.

“Before impact, fins lose power and go hardover. Engines fights to restore, but …,” Musk added.

Residual fuel and oxygen combine.  Credit: SpaceX/Elon MuskSpaceX/Elon Musk
Residual fuel and oxygen combine. Credit: SpaceX/Elon MuskSpaceX/Elon Musk

This ultimately caused the Falcon 9 to crash land as the legs and engine section were smashed and destroyed as the fuel and booster burst into flames. The ship survived no problem.

“Residual fuel and oxygen combine.”

“Full RUD (rapid unscheduled disassembly) event. Ship is fine minor repairs. Exciting day!” said Musk.

“Rocket made it to drone spaceport ship, but landed hard. Close, but no cigar this time. Bodes well for the future tho,” Musk tweeted within hours after the launch and recovery attempt.

As I wrote on launch day here at Universe Today, despite making a ‘hard landing’ on the vessel dubbed the ‘autonomous spaceport drone ship,’ the 14 story tall Falcon 9 first stage did make it to the drone ship, positioned some 200 miles offshore of the Florida-Carolina coast, northeast of the launch site in the Atlantic Ocean. The rocket broke into pieces upon hitting the barge.

Whereas virtually every other news outlet quickly declared the landing attempt a “Failure” in the headline, my assessment as a scientist and journalist was the complete opposite!!

In my opinion the experiment was “a very good first step towards the bold company goal of recovery and re-usability in the future” as I wrote in my post launch report here at Universe Today.

Listen to my live radio interview with BBC 5LIVE conducted Saturday night (Jan. 11 UK time), discussing SpaceX’s first attempt to land and return their Falcon-9 booster.

“Is it safe? Was SpaceX brave or foolhardy? Why is this significant? Will SpaceX succeed in the future?” the BBC host asked me.

I replied; “It was a 99% success” and more …..

“Am super proud of my crew for making huge strides towards reusability on this mission. You guys rock!” Musk declared in a later tweet.

SpaceX achieved virtually all of their objectives in the daunting feat except for a soft landing on the drone ship.

This was a bold experiment involving re-lighting one of the first stage Merlin 1D engines three times to act as a retro rocket to slow the stages descent and aim for the drone ship.

Four attached hypersonic grid fins and a trio of Merlin propulsive burns succeeded in slowing the booster from hypersonic velocity to subsonic and guiding it to the ship.

The drone ship measures only 300 feet by 170 feet. That’s tiny compared to the Atlantic Ocean.

The first stage was planned to make the soft landing by extending four landing legs to a width of about 70 feet to achieve an upright landing on the platform with a accuracy of 30 feet (10 meters).

No one has ever tried such a landing attempt before in the ocean says SpaceX. The company has conducted numerous successful soft landing tests on land. And several soft touchdowns on the ocean’s surface. But never before on a barge in the ocean.

So they will learn and move forward to the next experimental landing, that could come as early as a few weeks on the launch of the DSCOVR mission in late January or early February.

“Upcoming flight already has 50% more hydraulic fluid, so should have plenty of margin for landing attempt next month.”

Full RUD (rapid unscheduled disassembly) event. Ship is fine minor repairs. Exciting day! Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk
Full RUD (rapid unscheduled disassembly) event. Ship is fine minor repairs. Exciting day! Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk

Musk’s daring vision is to recover, refurbish and reuse the first stage and dramatically reduce the high cost of access to space, by introducing airline like operational concepts.

It remains to be seen whether his vision of reusing rockets can be made economical. Most of the space shuttle systems were reused, except for the huge external fuel tanks, but it was not a cheap proposition.

But we must try to cut rocket launch costs if we hope to achieve routine and affordable access to the high frontier and expand humanity’s reach to the stars.

The Falcon 9 launch itself was a flawless success, blasting off at 4:47 a.m. EST on Jan. 10 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The Dragon CRS-5 spacecraft was loaded with over 5108 pounds (2317 kg) of scientific experiments, technology demonstrations, the CATS science payload, student research investigations, crew supplies, spare parts, food, water, clothing and assorted research gear for the six person crew serving aboard the ISS.

It successfully rendezvoused at the station on Jan. 12 after a two day orbital chase, delivering the critical cargo required to keep the station stocked and humming with science.

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

Ken Kremer

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters, including Universe Today, in Cocoa Beach, FL, during prior SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk briefs reporters, including Universe Today, in Cocoa Beach, FL, during prior SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blastoff from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch the Falcon 9 Rocket Booster Descend into the Ocean for its “Soft” Landing

SpaceX today released video from the Falcon 9 first stage flyback and landing video from the July 14 launch of six ORBCOMM advanced telecommunications satellites. This was a test of the reusability of the Falcon 9’s first stage and its flyback and landing system. It splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, and SpaceX called it a “soft” landing, even though the booster did not survive the splashdown. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted on July 14 that the rocket booster reentry, landing burn and leg deployment worked well, but the hull of the first stage “lost integrity right after splashdown (aka kaboom).” He later reported that detailed review of rocket telemetry showed the booster took a “body slam, maybe from a self-generated wave.”

SpaceX today said last week’s test “confirms that the Falcon 9 booster is able consistently to reenter from space at hypersonic velocity, restart main engines twice, deploy landing legs and touch down at near zero velocity.”

This video is of much higher quality than the video from the first soft landing test in the ocean, back in April of this year following the launch of the CRS-3 mission for the Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station.

Even though the booster has not been recoverable from either test (the April test saw too rough of seas to get the booster) SpaceX said that they received all the necessary data “to achieve a successful landing on a future flight. Going forward, we are taking steps to minimize the build up of ice and spots on the camera housing in order to gather improved video on future launches.

The booster tipping over is the nominal procedure (in water), but the booster did touch down in a vertical position; additionally, as seen in the video, the landing legs deployed perfectly, and the flyback boosters performed flawlessly.

“At this point, we are highly confident of being able to land successfully on a floating launch pad or back at the launch site and refly the rocket with no required refurbishment,” SpaceX said in today’s press release. “However, our next couple launches are for very high velocity geostationary satellite missions, which don’t allow enough residual propellant for landing. In the longer term, missions like that will fly on Falcon Heavy, but until then Falcon 9 will need to fly in expendable mode.”

The next attempt for a our next water landing will be on Falcon 9’s thirteenth flight, a launch to the ISS for the fourth resupply mission, but they indicated the test would have a “low probability of success.” That flight is currently scheduled for no earlier than September 12, 2014. The next big challenge comes in flights 14 (another ORBCOMM satellite launch) and 15 (Turkmen satellite), where the booster will attempt to land on a solid surface. Those flights are currently scheduled for NET October and November of 2014.