Successful Static Fire Test Sets SpaceX on Target for Post Labor Day Launch of USAF X-37B Mini-Shuttle Sept. 7

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

PLAYALINDA BEACH/KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Following a successful engine test firing of the Falcon 9 first stage late Thursday afternoon (Aug. 30), SpaceX is targeting a post Labor Day launch of the U.S. Air Force’s unmanned X-37B reusable mini-shuttle – a secretive technology testing spaceplane.

The brief but critical hold down engine test took place at 4:30 p.m. EDT (2030 GMT) Aug. 31 at Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center – as witnessed live by myself and several spectators from nearby Playalinda Beach Causeway. See my photos herein.

Both SpaceX and the Air Force announced the target launch date after completion of the Aug. 31 engine test.

“Static fire test complete,” SpaceX confirmed via Twitter soon after completion of the test, “—targeting Falcon 9 launch of OTV-5 from Pad 39A at @NASAKennedy on Thursday, September 7.”

The routinely done static fire test and involves conducting a full launch dress rehearsal and countdown culminating with igniting all nine Merlin 1D first stage engines during a hold down test at the pad.

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

The Merlin’s generated a combined 1.7 million pounds of thrust and a huge exhaust plume billowing into the air from the north side flame trench during the test, which lasted several seconds.

The plume soon swirled overhead and dissipated about 10 minutes later. Ignition was accompanied by a loud roar we heard screaming out from the pad in all directions. A number of folks driving to and from Playalinda Beach had stopped to ask me what I was photographing prior to the test and stayed to witness the event.

The rocket will be lowered rolled back horizontally on the transporter erector into the SpaceX processing hangar and the spaceplane housed inside the payload fairing will be integrated on top. The full stack will then be rolled back out and erected at pad 39A.

The hold down test firing is carried out without the payload bolted on top inside the nose cone to keep it safe in the event of a catastrophic failure event such as occurred precisely 1 year ago – when a Falcon 9 blew up during fueling for similar engine test with the AMOS-6 satellite resulting in destruction of the rocket as well as the customers satellite hardware at pad 40.

The exact launch time had been a closely guarded secret – until this evening.

The X-37B launch is apparently lunchtime Thursday, September 7 at 12 PM – 12:01 PM, according to a Facebook post by the U.S. Air Force Space Command and the 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., posted Friday evening.

“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.

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

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.

But in another first, 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 of 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.”

The OTV-4 mission launched on the ULA Atlas V on May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41, on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Blastoff of the X-37B spaceplane on United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket with the OTV-4 AFSPC-5 satellite for the U.S. Air Force at 11:05 a.m. EDT, May 20, 2015 from Space Launch Complex-41. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

After spending a record setting 718 days in orbit, the X-37B program completed its fourth mission with a runway landing back at KSC’s Shuttle Landing Facility on May 7, 2017. Overall OTV’s have spent a total of 2,085 days in orbit.

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

Playalinda Beach is located just 4 miles north of pad 39A and offers an excellent launch viewing location for the OTV-5 mission – if officials allow it to be open to the public.

The engine test comes at the end of a very busy August with a trio of Florida Space Coast launches plus a Total Solar ‘Eclipse Across America’ sandwiched in between.

Also noteworthy is that OTV-5 will be launched into a higher inclination orbit compared to the prior four, serve as a technology testbed for multiple research payloads and will also somehow deploy several small satellites or cubesats.

“The fifth OTV mission continues to advance the X-37B’s performance and flexibility as a space technology demonstrator and host platform for experimental payloads,” the USAF said in a statement.

“This mission carries small satellite ride shares and will demonstrate greater opportunities for rapid space access and on-orbit testing of emerging space technologies. Building upon the fourth mission and previous collaboration with experiment partners, this mission will host the Air Force Research Laboratory Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader payload to test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipe technologies in the long duration space environment.”

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

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.

“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.

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 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.

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

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

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle taxiing on the flightline on March 30th, 2010, at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, Florida. Credit: USAF
SpaceX Falcon 9 booster stands at Launch Complex 39A after successful Aug 31, 2017 hotfire engine as seen from nearby Playalinda Beach. Liftoff of the USAF X-37B OTV-5 mini-shuttle mission is scheduled for Sept. 7, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX Awaits FAA Falcon 9 Launch License for 1st Pad 39A Blastoff on NASA ISS Cargo Flight

SpaceX crews are renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of commercial and human rated Falcon 9 rockets as well as the Falcon Heavy, as seen here during Dec 2016 with construction of a dedicated new transporter/erector. New rocket processing hangar sits at left. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – With liftoff tentatively penciled in for mid-February, SpaceX still awaits FAA approval of a launch license for what will be the firms first Falcon 9 rocket to launch from historic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center – on a critical NASA mission to resupply the space station – the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) confirmed today to Universe Today.

“The FAA is working closely with SpaceX to ensure the activity described in the application meets all applicable regulations for a launch license,” FAA spokesman Hank Price confirmed to Universe Today.

As of today, Feb. 7, SpaceX has not yet received “a license determination” from the FAA – as launch vehicle, launch pad and payload preparations continue moving forward for blastoff of the NASA contracted flight to carry science experiments and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard a SpaceX cargo Dragon atop an upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A on the Florida Space Coast.

“The FAA will continue to work with SpaceX to provide a license determination in a timely manner,” Price told me.

SpaceX currently has license applications pending with the FAA for both the NASA cargo launch and pad 39A. No commercial launch can take place without FAA approval.

Blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 on Dragon CRS-9 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) at 12:45 a.m. EDT on July 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The goal of the 22-story tall SpaceX Falcon 9 is to carry an unmanned Dragon cargo freighter for the NASA customer on the CRS-10 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

Dragon will be loaded with more than two tons of equipment, gear, food, supplies and NASA’s Stratospheric Aerosol Gas Experiment III (SAGE III) ozone mapping science payload.

Engineers at work processing NASA’s Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment III, or SAGE III instrument inside the Space Station Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today in December 2016. Technicians are working in a super-clean ‘tent’ built in the SSPF high bay to protect SAGE III’s special optics and process the Ozone mapper for upcoming launch on the SpaceX CRS-10 Dragon cargo flight to the International Space Station in early 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The historic NASA launch pad was formerly used to launch both America’s space shuttles and astronauts on Apollo/Saturn V moon landing missions.

SpaceX, founded by billionaire CEO Elon Musk, leased Launch Complex 39A from NASA back in April 2014 and is modifying and modernizing the pad for unmanned and manned launches of the Falcon 9 as well as the Falcon Heavy.

The role of the FAA is to license commercial launches and protect the public.

“The FAA licenses commercial rocket launches and reentries to ensure the protection of public health and safety,” Price elaborated.

This FAA license situation is similar to that for last month’s Falcon 9 ‘Return to Flight’ launch from California, where the SpaceX approval was granted only days before liftoff of the Iridium-1 mission.

Last week SpaceX announced a shuffled launch schedule, whereby the NASA cargo flight on the CRS-10 resupply mission was placed first in line for liftoff from pad 39A – ahead of a commercial EchoStar communications satellite.

The aerospace company said the payload switch would allow additional time was to complete all the extensive ground support work and pad testing required for repurposing seaside Launch Complex 39A from launching the NASA Space Shuttle to the SpaceX Falcon 9.

The inaugural Falcon 9 blastoff from pad 39A has slipped repeatedly from January into February 2017.

The unofficial most recently targeted ‘No Earlier Than’ NET date for CRS-10 has apparently slipped from NET Feb 14 to Feb 17.

CRS-10 counts as SpaceX’s tenth cargo flight to the ISS since 2012 under contract to NASA.

Further launch postponements are quite possible at any time and NASA is officially stating a goal of “NET mid-February” – but with no actual target date specified.

SpaceX is repurposing historic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida for launches of the Falcon 9 rocket. Ongoing pad preparation by work crews is seen in this current view taken on Jan. 27, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Crews have been working long hours to transform and refurbish pad 39A and get it ready for Falcon 9 launches. Furthermore, a newly built transporter erector launcher was seen raised at the pad multiple times in recent weeks. The transporter will move the rocket horizontally up the incline at the pad, and then erect it vertically for launch.

SpaceX was previously employing pad 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for Falcon 9 launches to the ISS as well as commercial launches.

But pad 40 suffered severe damage following the unexpected launch pad explosion on Sept 1, 2016 that completely destroyed a Falcon 9 and the $200 million Amos-6 commercial payload during a prelaunch fueling test.
Furthermore it is not known when pad 40 will be ready to resume launches.

Thus SpaceX has had to switch launch pads for near term future flights and press pad 39A into service much more urgently, and the refurbishing and repurposing work is not yet complete.

Pad 39A has lain dormant for launches for nearly six years since Space Shuttle Atlantis launched on the final shuttle mission STS 135 in July 2011.

To date SpaceX has not rolled a Falcon 9 rocket to pad 39A, not raised it to launch position, not conducted a fueling exercise and not conducted a static fire test. All the fit checks with a real rocket remain to be run.

Up close view of SpaceX Dragon CRS-9 resupply ship and solar panels atop Falcon 9 rocket at pad 40 prior to blastoff to ISS on July 18, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Once the pad is ready, SpaceX plans an aggressive launch schedule in 2017.

“The launch vehicles, Dragon, and the EchoStar satellite are all healthy and prepared for launch,” SpaceX stated.

The history making first use of a recycled Falcon 9 carrying the SES-10 communications satellite could follow as soon as March or April, if all goes well – as outlined here.

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

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Shuffles Falcon 9 Launch Schedule, NASA Gets 1st Launch from Historic KSC Pad 39A

SpaceX is repurposing historic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida for launches of the Falcon 9 rocket. Ongoing pad preparation by work crews is seen in this current view taken on Jan. 27, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – SpaceX announced Sunday (Jan. 29) a significant shuffle to the Falcon 9 launch schedule, saying that a key NASA mission to resupply the space station is moving to the head of the line and will now be their first mission to launch from historic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center – formerly used to launch space shuttles.

The late breaking payload switch will allow SpaceX, founded by billionaire CEO Elon Musk, additional time to complete all the extensive ground support work and pad testing required for repurposing seaside Launch Complex 39A from launching the NASA Space Shuttle to the SpaceX Falcon 9.

Blastoff of the 22-story tall SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying an unmanned Dragon cargo freighter with NASA as customer on the CRS-10 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) could come as soon as mid-February, said SpaceX.

“SpaceX announced today that its first launch from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida will be the CRS-10 mission to the International Space Station,” said SpaceX in a statement.

CRS-10 counts as SpaceX’s tenth cargo flight to the ISS since 2012 under contract to NASA.

SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of commercial and human rated Falcon 9 rockets as well as the Falcon Heavy, as seen here during Dec 2016 with construction of a dedicated new transporter/erector. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Crews have been working long hours to modify pad 39A and get it ready for Falcon 9 launches. Also, the newly built transporter erector launcher was seen raised at the pad multiple times in recent days. The transporter will move the rocket horizontally up the incline at the pad, and then erect it vertically.

“This schedule change allows time for additional testing of ground systems ahead of the CRS-10 mission,” SpaceX announced in a statement.

The surprise switch in customers means that the previously planned first Falcon 9 launch from pad 39A of the commercial EchoStar 23 communications satellite is being pushed off to a later date – perhaps late February.

Until now, EchoStar 23 was slated to be the first satellite launched by a Falcon 9 from Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. It could have come as soon as by the end of this week.

However, the Falcon 9 launch date from pad 39A has slipped repeatedly in January, with this week on Feb. 3 as the most recently targeted ‘No Earlier Than’ NET date.

SpaceX successfully resumed launches of the Falcon 9 earlier this month when the first flock of 10 Iridium NEXT mobile voice and data relay satellites blasted off on the Iridium 1 mission from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Jan. 14, 2017.

NASA now gets the first dibs for using pad 39A which has lain dormant for nearly six years since Space Shuttle Atlantis launched on the final shuttle mission STS 135 in July 2011.

SpaceX leased pad 39A from NASA for launches of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy back in April 2014 and was already employing pad 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for Falcon 9 launches to the ISS.

The last Dragon resupply mission to the ISS blasted off on July 18, 2016 on the CRS-9 mission. The Falcon 9 first stage was also successfully recovered via a propulsive soft landing back at the Cape at night.

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

The last successful Falcon 9 launch from Space Launch Complex-40 took place on Aug. 14, 2016, carrying the JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit.

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

But following the unexpected launch pad explosion on Sept 1, 2016 that completely destroyed a Falcon 9 and the $200 million Amos-6 commercial payload during a prelaunch fueling test, pad 40 suffered extensive damage.

Furthermore it is not known when the pad will be ready to resume launches.

Aerial view of pad and strongback damage at SpaceX Launch Complex-40 as seen from the VAB roof on Sept. 8, 2016 after fueling test explosion destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

So SpaceX has had to switch launch pads for near term future flights and press pad 39A into service much more urgently, and the refurbishing and repurposing work is not yet complete.

To date SpaceX has not rolled a Falcon 9 rocket to pad 39A, not raised it to launch position, not conducted a fueling exercise and not conducted a static fire test. All the fit checks with a real rocket remain to be run.

Thus the current launch target of mid-February for CRS-10 remains a target date and not a firm launch date. EchoStar 23 is next in line.

“The launch is currently targeted for no earlier than mid-February,” SpaceX elaborated.

“Following the launch of CRS-10, first commercial mission from 39A is currently slated to be EchoStar XXIII.”

Once the pad is ready, SpaceX plans an aggressive launch schedule in 2017.

“The launch vehicles, Dragon, and the EchoStar satellite are all healthy and prepared for launch,” SpaceX stated.

The history making first use of a recycled Falcon 9 carrying the SES-10 communications satellite could follow as soon as March, if all goes well.

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

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

Ken Kremer

SpaceX crews are renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of commercial and human rated Falcon 9 rockets as well as the Falcon Heavy, as seen here during Dec 2016 with construction of a dedicated new transporter/erector. At new rocket processing hangar sits at left. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX Falcon 9 Comes Roaring Back to Life with Dramatically Successful Iridium Fleet Launch and Ocean Ship Landing

Picture perfect blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 on Jan. 14, 2017, Return to Flight launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California carrying fleet of ten advanced Iridium NEXT comsats to low Earth orbit. Credit: SpaceX

With Billions and Billions of dollars at stake and their reputation riding on the line, SpaceX came roaring back to life by dramatically executing a picture perfect Falcon 9 rocket launch this morning (Jan. 14) that successfully delivered a fleet of ten advanced Iridium NEXT mobile voice and data relay satellites to orbit while simultaneously recovering the first stage on a ship at sea off the west coast of California.

BREAKING NEWS – check back for updates.

The primary goal of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch from Space Launch Complex 4E on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California was to deploy the payload of the first ten Iridium Next communication satellites to low Earth orbit on the Iridium-1 mission.

“Thanks @elonmusk – a perfect flight! Loved watching sats deploy with you in the control room,” tweeted Matt Desch, Iridium Communications CEO, soon after receiving full confirmation that all 10 Iridium NEXT satellites were successfully deployed from their second stage satellite dispensers.

“More to go, but now to celebrate!!”

The inaugural ten will serve as the vanguard of a fleet that will eventually comprise 81 satellites.

SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage successfully soft lands on drone ship stationed in the Pacific Ocean off California coast after launching on Jan. 14, 2017, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California carrying fleet of ten advanced Iridium NEXT comsats to low Earth orbit. Credit: SpaceX

Today’s successful blastoff took place barely four and a half months after another Falcon 9 and its $200 million Israeli commercial payload were suddenly destroyed during a prelaunch fueling test on the Florida Space Coast on Sept. 1, 2016.

Another launch failure would have dealt a devastating blow to confidence in SpaceX’s hard won reputation.

The Sept. 1, 2016 calamity was the second Falcon 9 failure within 15 months time. Both occurred inside the second stage and called into question the rockets reliability.

The 229-foot (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket was rolled out from its processing hangar to the launch pad and raised vertically yesterday.

Picture perfect blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 on Jan. 14, 2017, Return to Flight launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California carrying fleet of ten advanced Iridium NEXT comsats to low Earth orbit. Credit: SpaceX

Today’s entire land, landing and satellite deployment event was shown live on a SpaceX hosted webcast. It offered extremely sharp views of Saturdays on time liftoff at 9:54:34 a.m. PST or 12:54:34 p.m. EST, and unbelievably clear images of the first stage descending back to Earth towards a tiny drone ship.

“Overall a wonderfully nominal mission,” gushed the SpaceX commentator during the webcast.

Since the Iridium 1 mission only had an instantaneous launch opportunity precisely at 9:54:34 a.m. PST or 12:54:34 p.m. EST, there was no margin for any technical or weather delays. And none happened. Although an errant boat had to be quickly escorted out of the exclusion zone less than 20 minutes before blastoff.

Confirmation of a successful deployment of all 10 Iridium NEXT satellites came at about T plus 1 hour and 17 minutes after liftoff from Vandenberg.

“So, so excited – finally breathing again!” tweeted Desch.

“Thanks for all the great vibes – I felt it! All 10 sats deployed; good orbit; good telemetry! WOW.”

The mobile relay satellites were delivered into a circular orbit at an altitude of 625 kilometers (388 miles) above Earth.

They were released one at a time from a pair of specially designed satellite dispensers at approximately 100 second intervals.

“It was a clean sweep, 10 for 10,” said SpaceX commentator John Insprucker during the live webcast.

“All the bridge wires show open, and that is a conclusion of the primary mission today, a great one for the first stage, second stage, and the customer’s satellites deployed into a good orbit.”

The Iridium NEXT satellites were built by Thales Alenia and Orbital ATK.

In the final moments before the propulsive landing, you could read the lettering on the “Just Read the Instructions” drone ship as the engine was firing to slow the descent and the landing legs deployed.

Really there was no cutout or loss of signal the whole way down. So the world could watch every key moment as it happened in real time.

The first stage softly landed approx. 8 minutes and 18 seconds after the California liftoff.

“First stage has landed on Just Read the Instructions,” SpaceX tweeted post landing.

This was the first launch by SpaceX since last August from the Florida Space Coast, and it came off without a hitch.

Iridium 1 is the first of seven planned Falcon 9 launches to establish the Iridium NEXT constellation which will eventually consist of 81 advanced satellites.

At least 70 will be launched by SpaceX.

The inaugural launch of the advanced Iridium NEXT satellites will start the process of replacing an aging Iridium fleet in orbit for nearly two decades.

SpaceX Falcon 9 poised for Jan. 14, 2017, Return to Flight launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California carrying ten Iridium NEXT comsats to orbit. Credit: SpaceX

This Falcon 9 was been outfitted with four landing lags and grid fins for a controlled landing on the tiny barge prepositioned in the Pacific Ocean several hundred miles off the west coast of California.

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016 arrives at mouth of Port Canaveral, FL on June 2, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch this space for continuing updates on SpaceX.

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

Ken Kremer

IridiumNEXT satellites being fueled, pressurized & stacked on dispenser tiers at Vandenberg AFB for Falcon 9 launch. Credit: Iridium
Mission patch for Iridium-1 mission showing launch of the first 10 Iridium NEXT voice and data relay satellites on SpaceX Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, for Iridium Communications, and planned landing of the first stage on a droneship in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: SpaceX/Iridium

SpaceX Set for High Stakes Falcon 9 Blastoff Resumption with Iridium Satellite Fleet on Jan. 14 – Watch Live

SpaceX Falcon 9 poised for Jan. 14, 2017, Return to Flight launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California carrying ten Iridium NEXT comsats to orbit. Credit: SpaceX

The stakes could almost not be higher for SpaceX as the firm readies their twice failed Falcon 9 rocket for a blastoff resumption on Saturday morning, Jan. 14 carrying the vanguard of the commercial Iridium NEXT satellite fleet to orbit from their California rocket base.

Barely four and a half months after another Falcon 9 and its $200 million Israeli commercial payload were suddenly destroyed during a prelaunch fueling test on the Florida Space Coast on Sept. 1, 2016, SpaceX says all systems are GO for the ‘Return to Flight’ launch of a new Falcon 9 on the Iridium-1 mission from the California coast tomorrow.

Another launch failure would deal a devastating blow to confidence in SpaceX’s hard won reputation – so ‘Failure is Not an Option’ as they say in the space business.

The Sept. 1, 2016 calamity was the second Falcon 9 failure within 15 months time. Both occurred inside the second stage and called into question the rockets reliability.

The 229-foot (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket has been rolled out from its processing hangar to the launch pad and raised vertically.

“Beautiful picture of our ride to space tomorrow on the launch pad this morning!” tweeted Matt Desch, Iridium Communications CEO, featuring the lead photo in this story.

A license for permission to proceed with the launch originally last Sunday was only granted by the FAA last Friday, Jan. 6. But poor California weather in the form of stormy rains and high winds forced further delays to Saturday.

Today, Friday the 13th, it’s T-Minus 1 Day to the inaugural launch of the advanced Iridium NEXT voice and data relay satellites.

Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 with the payload of 10 identical next generation Iridium NEXT communications satellites is slated for 9:54:39 am PST or 5:54:39 pm UTC from Space Launch Complex 4E on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The Iridium 1 mission only has an instantaneous launch opportunity precisely at 9:54:34 a.m. PST or 12:54:34 p.m. EST.

You can watch the launch live via a SpaceX webcast starting about 20 minutes prior to the planned liftoff time:

The launch will be broadcast at : http://www.spacex.com/webcast

Weather forecasters currently predict about a 60 percent chance of favorable conditions at launch time.

Sunday, Jan. 15 is available as a back-up launch opportunity in case of a delay for any reason including technical and weather related issues.

The Iridium NEXT payload has been secured to the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at T-2 days to launch. Credit: SpaceX/Iridium

“The teams from Iridium, SpaceX and our partners are in the homestretch for the first launch of the Iridium NEXT satellite constellation,” said satellite owner Iridium Communications.

Meanwhile the launch teams have completed the countdown dress rehearsal’ and Launch Readiness Review in anticipation of the morning liftoff.

“Final preparations are being made for tomorrow’s inaugural launch, and with that comes a number of high-stakes verifications, involving all parties. Traditionally referred to as the ‘countdown dress rehearsal’ and ‘Launch Readiness Review’ (LRR), these milestones represent the final hurdles to clearing the path for the January 14th launch.”

“The countdown dress rehearsal and LRR include several prelaunch inspections and quality control measures. These include final clearances for the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, Iridium NEXT payload, SpaceX and Iridium® ground infrastructure and associated team member responsibilities.”

Iridium says that every precaution has been taken to ensure a successful launch.

“There are so many variables that need to be considered when finalizing launch preparations, and a slight deviation or unexpected behavior by any of them can jeopardize the launch integrity,” said Iridium COO Scott Smith, in a statement.

“We’ve perfected the necessary procedures, taken every precaution we can imagine, and tomorrow, after what has felt like centuries, we’ll take the first step on a long-awaited journey to revolutionize satellite communications. The success of today’s events has brought us to an apex moment.”

IridiumNEXT satellites being fueled, pressurized & stacked on dispenser tiers at Vandenberg AFB for Falcon 9 launch. Credit: Iridium

Iridium 1 is the first of seven planned Falcon 9 launches to establish the Iridium NEXT constellation which will eventually consist of 81 advanced satellites.

At least 70 will be launched by SpaceX.

The inaugural launch of the advanced Iridium NEXT satellites will start the process of replacing an aging Iridium fleet in orbit for nearly two decades.

Mission patch for Iridium-1 mission showing launch of the first 10 Iridium NEXT voice and data relay satellites on SpaceX Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, for Iridium Communications, and planned landing of the first stage on a droneship in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: SpaceX/Iridium

After the Sept .1 calamity SpaceX conducted a four month long investigation seeking to determine the root cause.

And it was just last Friday, Jan. 6, that the FAA finally granted SpaceX a license to launch the ‘Return to Flight’ Falcon 9 mission – as I confirmed with the FAA.

“The FAA accepted the investigation report on the AMOS-6 mishap and has closed the investigation,” FAA spokesman Hank Price confirmed to Universe Today.

“SpaceX applied for a license to launch the Iridium NEXT satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The FAA has granted a license for that purpose.”

The SpaceX investigation report into the total loss of the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload has not been released at this time. The FAA has oversight responsibility to encourage, facilitate, and promote U.S. commercial space transportation and ensure the protection of public safety.

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

In addition to the launch, SpaceX plans to continue its secondary objective of recovering the Falcon 9 first stage via a propulsive soft landing – as done several times previously and witnessed by this author.

The Iridium-1 mission patch featured herein highlights both the launch and landing objectives.

The goal is to eventually recycle and reuse the first stage – and thereby dramatically slash launch costs per Musk’s vision.

This Falcon 9 has been outfitted with four landing legs and grid fins for a controlled landing on a tiny barge prepositioned in the Pacific Ocean several hundred miles off the west coast of California.

Watch this space for continuing updates on SpaceX.

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

Ken Kremer

Poor Weather Pushes SpaceX Return Debut with Revolutionary Iridium Relay Sats to Jan. 14

Mission patch for Iridium-1 mission showing launch of the first 10 Iridium NEXT voice and data relay satellites on SpaceX Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, for Iridium Communications, and planned landing of the first stage on a droneship in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: SpaceX/Iridium

In the face of unrelenting days of very poor weather and a range conflict with another very critical rocket launch, SpaceX is pushing back the return debut of their private Falcon 9 rocket carrying a revolutionary fleet of voice and data commercial communications relay satellites for Iridium to no earlier than next weekend, Jan 14.

Earlier indications of a nearly weeks long launch delay from Monday, Jan. 9 to next Saturday morning, Jan. 14, were officially confirmed today, Jan. 8, by SpaceX and their Iridium Communications customer.

“Launch moving due to high winds and rains at Vandenberg,” SpaceX announced today, Jan. 8.

Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 with the payload of 10 identical next generation Iridium NEXT communications satellites had been slated for 10:22 am PST (1:22 pm EST), Jan. 9, 2017 from Space Launch Complex 4E on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The advanced next satellites will start the process of replacing an aging Iridium fleet in orbit for nearly two decades.

And it was less than 48 hours ago on Friday, Jan. 6, that the FAA finally granted SpaceX a license to launch the ‘Return to Flight’ Falcon 9 mission – as I confirmed with the FAA here.

“The FAA accepted the investigation report on the AMOS-6 mishap and has closed the investigation,” FAA spokesman Hank Price confirmed to Universe Today.

“SpaceX applied for a license to launch the Iridium NEXT satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The FAA has granted a license for that purpose.”

The SpaceX investigation report into the total loss of the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload has not been released at this time. The FAA has oversight responsibility to encourage, facilitate, and promote U.S. commercial space transportation and ensure the protection of public safety.

The private rocket – developed by CEO Elon Musk and his company – has been grounded for four months since a catastrophic launch pad explosion last September suddenly destroyed another Falcon 9 and its $200 million Israeli owned satellite during a prelaunch fueling test on the Florida Space Coast.

The Sept. 1, 2016 calamity was the second Falcon 9 failure within 15 months time. Both occurred inside the second stage and called into question the rockets reliability.

The prognosis of a week of bad California weather had been known for some time and finally prompted an official announcement just 24 hours before the hoped for launch.

“With high winds and rain in the forecast at Vandenberg Air Force Base, the first launch of 10 Iridium NEXT satellites is now planned for January 14th at 9:54:34 am PST with a back-up date of January 15th,” Iridium officials elaborated in a statement.

The mission, known as Iridium 1, has an instantaneous launch opportunity at 9:54:34 a.m. PST (12:54:34 p.m. EST).

Next Sunday, Jan. 15 is available as a back-up launch opportunity in case of a delay for any reason including technical and weather related issues.

Furthermore, humorous pleas by Iridium CEO Matt Desch for divine intervention went unheeded !

“Can now confirm: new launch date Jan 14 at 9:54am pst. Bad weather the cause. Anti-rain dances didn’t work – oh well. Cal needs rain?” said Iridium CEO Matt Desch when he threw in the towel this morning by tweet.

Things change fast and furious in the rocket business, and flexibility is the name of the game if you want to survive the frequently changing landscape.

IridiumNEXT satellites being fueled, pressurized & stacked on dispenser tiers at Vandenberg AFB for Falcon 9 launch. Credit: Iridium

A contributing factor to the delay is a range conflict with an upcoming Atlas rocket launch for the U.S National Reconnaissance Organization (NRO) at Vandenberg AFB.

“Other range conflicts this week results in next available launch date being Jan 14,” SpaceX confirmed.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V is scheduled to launch the super secret NROL-79 spy satellite for the NRO on Jan. 26.

Prior to the launch, ULA must conduct a wet dress rehearsal (WDR) of the Atlas V by fueling it with propellants to confirm its readiness to launch.

The clandestine NROL-79 intelligence-gathering payload is critical to US national defense. Surly it was manufactured over a time span of several years at an unknown classified cost probably amounting to billions of dollars.

For the Iridium – 1 mission the 229-foot (70-meter) Falcon 9 will carry a fleet of ten Iridium NEXT mobile voice and data relay satellites to orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Ca, for Iridium Communications.

Video Caption: Iridium NEXT: Changing the Paradigm In Space Communications. Credit: Iridium/SpaceX

Iridium 1 is the first of seven planned Falcon 9 launches to establish the Iridium NEXT constellation which will eventually consist of 81 advanced satellites.

The FAA license approved on Jan. 6 covers all seven launches.

“Space Explorations Technologies is authorized to conduct seven launches of Falcon 9 version 1.2 vehicles from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base with each flight transporting ten Iridium NEXT payloads to low Earth orbit.

The license also allows SpaceX to land the first stage on a droneship at sea in the Pacific Ocean.

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016 arrives at mouth of Port Canaveral, FL on June 2, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

So besides the launch, SpaceX plans to continue its secondary objective of recovering the Falcon 9 first stage via a propulsive soft landing – as done several times previously and witnessed by this author.

The Iridium-1 mission patch featured herein highlights both the launch and landing objectives.

The goal is to eventually recycle and reuse the first stage – and thereby dramatically slash launch costs per Musk’s vision.

This Falcon 9 has been outfitted with four landing lags and grid fins for a controlled landing on a tiny barge prepositioned in the Pacific Ocean several hundred miles off the west coast of California.

Desch says that all seven of his Falcon’s will be new – not reused.

“All our seven F9s are new,” Desch tweeted.

On Jan. 2, SpaceX issued a statement ascribing the Sept. 1, 2016 AMOS-6 launch pad anomaly as being traced to a failure wherein one of three high pressure helium storage tanks located inside the second stage liquid oxygen (LOX) tank of the Falcon 9 rocket suddenly burst. Cold helium is used to pressurize the propellant tanks. They provided some but not many technical details.

The failure apparently originated at a point where the helium tank “buckles” and accumulates oxygen – “leading to ignition” of the highly flammable superchilled oxygen propellant in the second stage when it came into contact with carbon fibers covering the helium tanks – also known as composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs).

“Friction ignition” between the carbon fibers acting as a friction source and super chilled oxygen led to the calamitous explosion, SpaceX concluded was the most likely cause of the disaster.

Watch this space for continuing updates as SpaceX rolls the rocket out from the processing hangar and we watch the saga of the foggy weather forecast with great anticipation !

SpaceX rocket processing hangar at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, fogged by common fog. Credit Julian Leek

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

Ken Kremer

FAA Accepts Accident Report, Grants SpaceX License for Falcon 9 ‘Return to Flight’

SpaceX Falcon 9 poised for launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, in this file photo ahead of Jason-3 launch for NASA on Jan. 17, 2016. Credit: SpaceX

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) today “accepted the investigation report” regarding the results of SpaceX’s investigation into the cause of the company’s catastrophic Sept. 1, 2016 launch pad explosion of a Falcon 9 rocket in Florida, and simultaneously “granted a license” for the ‘Return to Flight’ blastoff of the private rocket from California as soon as next week – the FAA confirmed today to Universe Today, Friday, Jan. 6.

“The FAA accepted the investigation report on the AMOS-6 mishap and has closed the investigation,” FAA spokesman Hank Price confirmed to Universe Today.

All SpaceX launches were immediately grounded when their Falcon 9 booster and its $200 million AMOS-6 Israeli communications satellite payload were suddenly destroyed without warning during a routine preflight fueling test on Sept. 1, 2016, at pad 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on Sept. 1, 2016. A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport

With today’s definitive action from the FAA the path is now clear for Hawthorne, Ca based SpaceX to resume launches of the Falcon 9 rocket as soon as Monday, Jan. 9. It will carry a fleet of ten Iridium NEXT mobile voice and data relay satellites to orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Ca, for Iridium Communications.

“SpaceX applied for a license to launch the Iridium NEXT satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The FAA has granted a license for that purpose,” Price added.

The SpaceX investigation report has not been released at this time.

Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 with the payload of 10 identical next generation IridiumNEXT communications satellites is slated for 10:22 am PST (1:22 pm EST), Jan. 9, 2017 from Space Launch Complex 4E on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Furthermore all technical systems would appear to be ‘GO’ for the commercial rocket and commercial payload, following the official announcement by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk that the Falcon 9 rocket successfully passed its normally routine prelaunch static fire test of the first stage engines, on Thursday, Jan. 5.

“Hold-down firing of @SpaceX Falcon 9 at Vandenberg Air Force completed,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted Jan. 5.

“All systems are go for launch next week.”

“Payload/rocket mating underway,” Iridium CEO Matt Desch elaborated and confirmed via twitter today.

The static fire test involves briefly firing the first stage Merlin 1D engines for several seconds while the rocket remains anchored to the launch pad. The test is run to confirm that all the engines and rocket systems are technically ready for launch.

In contrast to AMOS-6, the Iridium NEXT payload was not installed atop the rocket this time during Thursday’s test to keep them safely and prudently stored out of harms way – just in case another unexpected mishap were to occur.

Members of the Iridium Communications team were on hand to observe Thursday’s static fire test first hand.

“With great anticipation, team members observed the static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket that will deliver the first ten Iridium NEXT satellites to orbit. Iridium is excited to share that the test is complete, and that SpaceX is reporting that the rocket should be ready for the first launch of the Iridium NEXT satellite constellation next week,” said Iridium officials.

“The target launch date is now Monday, January 9th at 10:22 am PST, weather permitting.”

And since the launch window is instantaneous, there is no margin for error or delay from either a technical or weather standpoint.

Currently, next weeks weather outlook is not promising with a forecast of rain and clouds on Monday morning and beyond. But only time will tell.

“With completion of the static fire test, our first launch has just gotten that much closer,” said Matt Desch, chief executive officer at Iridium, in a statement.

“The Iridium team has been anxiously awaiting launch day, and we’re now all the more excited to send those first ten Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit.”

“Looks like we’re good to go for Monday!” Desch tweeted today.

“Payload/rocket mating underway; we’ll just have to see about the weather. Anti-rain dances, anyone?”

IridiumNEXT satellites being fueled, pressurized & stacked on dispenser tiers at Vandenberg AFB for Falcon 9 launch. Credit: Iridium

Also known as Iridium 1, this is the first of seven planned Falcon 9 launches to establish the Iridium NEXT constellation – eventually consisting of 81 advanced satellites.

IridiumNEXT satellites being fueled, pressurized & stacked on dispenser tiers at Vandenberg AFB for Falcon 9 launch. Credit: Iridium

Indeed the FAA license approved today covers all seven launches.

“Space Explorations Technologies is authorized to conduct seven launches of Falcon 9 version 1.2 vehicles from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base with each flight transporting ten Iridium NEXT payloads to low Earth orbit.

The license also allows SpaceX to land the first stage on a droneship at sea in the Pacific Ocean.

After the Sept. 1 accident at pad 40, SpaceX initiated a joint investigation to determine the root cause with the FAA, NASA, the US Air Force and industry experts who have been “working methodically through an extensive fault tree to investigate all plausible causes.”

On Jan. 2, SpaceX issued a statement ascribing the Sept. 1 anomaly as being traced to a failure wherein one of three high pressure gaseous helium storage tanks located inside the second stage liquid oxygen (LOX) tank of the Falcon 9 rocket suddenly burst. Helium is used to pressurize the propellant tanks. They provided some but not many technical details.

The failure apparently originated at a point where the helium tank “buckles” and accumulates oxygen – “leading to ignition” of the highly flammable liquid oxygen propellant in the second stage when it came into contact with carbon fibers covering the helium tank.

The helium tanks – also known as composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) – are used in both stages of the Falcon 9 to store cold helium which is used to maintain tank pressure.

SpaceX says investigators identified “an accumulation of super chilled liquid oxygen LOX or SOX in buckles under the overwrap” as “credible causes for the COPV failure.”

Apparently the super chilled LOX or SOX can pool in the buckles and react with carbon fibers in the overwrap – which act as an ignition source. “Friction ignition” between the carbon fibers and super chilled oxygen led to the calamitous explosion.

The Sept. 1 calamity was the second Falcon 9 failure within 15 months time and both occurred inside the second stage.

Up close look at a SpaceX Falcon 9 second stage and payload fairing from the JCSAT-16 launch from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Both Falcon 9 rocket failures took place inside the second stage. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

If the Iridium liftoff is successful, SpaceX hopes to resume launches on the Florida Space Coast soon thereafter involving both commercial and NASA payloads using pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.

SpaceX could launch an EchoStar communications satellite later in January and a cargo resupply mission for NASA to the ISS in February from KSC.

Blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 on Dragon CRS-9 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) at 12:45 a.m. EDT on July 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch this space for continuing updates as SpaceX rolls the rocket out from the processing hangar and we watch the foggy weather forecast with great anticipation !

SpaceX rocket processing hangar at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, fogged by common fog. Credit Julian Leek

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

Ken Kremer

SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of commercial and human rated Falcon 9 rockets as well as the Falcon Heavy, as seen here during Dec 2016 with construction of a dedicated new transporter/erector. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX Falcon 9 erected at Vandenberg AFB launch pad in California in advance of Jason-3 launch for NASA on Jan. 17, 2016. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX Finds Failure Cause, Announces Sunday Jan. 8 as Target for Falcon 9 Flight Resumption

Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. 1st stage booster landed safely at sea minutes later. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

After an intensive four month investigation into why a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded without warning on the launch pad last September, the company today announced the failures likely cause as well as plans of a rapid resumption of flights as soon as next Sunday, Jan. 8, from their California launch complex – carrying a lucrative commercial payload of 10 advanced mobile relay satellites to orbit for Iridium Communications.

“Targeting return to flight from Vandenberg with the @IridiumComm NEXT launch on January 8,” SpaceX announced on their website today, Monday, Jan. 2., 2017.

“Our date is now public. Next Sunday morning, Jan 8 at 10:28:07 pst. Iridium NEXT launch #1 flies!” Iridium Communications CEO Matt Desch quickly confirmed by tweet today, Jan 2.

SpaceX has been dealing with the far reaching and world famous fallout from the catastrophic launch pad explosion that eviscerated a Falcon 9 and its expensive $200 million Israeli Amos-6 commercial payload in Florida without warning, during a routine preflight fueling test on Sept. 1, 2016, at pad 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The first ten IridiumNEXT satellites are stacked and encapsulated in the Falcon 9 fairing for launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Ca., in early 2017. Credit: Iridium

After the Sept. 1 accident at pad 40, SpaceX initiated a joint investigation to determine the root cause with the FAA, NASA, the US Air Force and industry experts who have been “working methodically through an extensive fault tree to investigate all plausible causes.”

“We have been working closely with NASA, and the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] and our commercial customers to understand it,” said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

Via the “fault tree analysis” the Sept. 1 anomaly has been traced to a failure in one of three gaseous helium storage tanks located inside the second stage liquid oxygen (LOX) tank of the Falcon 9 rocket, according to a statement released by SpaceX today which provided some but not many technical details.

The failure apparently originated at a point where the helium tank “buckles” and accumulates oxygen – “leading to ignition” of the highly flammable liquid oxygen propellant in the second stage.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on Sept. 1, 2016. A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport

The helium tanks – also known as composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) – are used in both stages of the Falcon 9 to store cold helium which is used to maintain tank pressure.

“The accident investigation team worked systematically through an extensive fault tree analysis and concluded that one of the three composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) inside the second stage liquid oxygen (LOX) tank failed.”

“Each COPV consists of an aluminum inner liner with a carbon overwrap.”

“Specifically, the investigation team concluded the failure was likely due to the accumulation of oxygen between the COPV liner and overwrap in a void or a buckle in the liner, leading to ignition and the subsequent failure of the COPV.”

SpaceX says investigators identified “an accumulation of super chilled LOX or SOX in buckles under the overwrap” as “credible causes for the COPV failure.”

Apparently the super chilled LOX or SOX can pool in the buckles and react with carbon fibers in the overwrap – which act as an ignition source.

As part of the most recent upgrade to the Falcon 9, SpaceX changed their fueling procedure to include the use of densified oxygen – or super chilled oxygen – in order to load more propellant into the same volume, at a lower temperature of about minus 340 degrees Fahrenheit for SOX vs. about minus 298 degrees Fahrenheit for LOX.

In essence SpaceX gets more gallons of super chilled oxygen into the same tank volume because of the higher density – and they don’t have to change the rocket’s dimensions.

This temperature change enables the Falcon 9 to launch heavier payloads.

However the side effect of the superchilling process is that the oxygen is now very close to its freezing point – with the potential to partially solidify , rather than being a completely free flowing liquid. Then the resulting friction with carbon fibers can ignite the pooled oxygen resulting in an instantaneous fireball and destruction of the rocket – as happened to Falcon 9 and Amos-6 at pad 40 on Sept. 1, 2016.

“Investigators concluded that super chilled LOX can pool in these buckles under the overwrap. When pressurized, oxygen pooled in this buckle can become trapped; in turn, breaking fibers or friction can ignite the oxygen in the overwrap, causing the COPV to fail.”

Very concerning to this author is the fact that the helium loading conditions are confirmed to be so low that they can actually freeze the liquid oxygen into solid form. Thus it cannot flow freely and significantly increases the chances of a “friction ignition.”

This same Falcon 9 rocket will be used to launch our astronauts to the ISS in 2018 – seated inside a Crew Dragon atop the helium tank bathed in super chilled LOX.

“Investigators determined that the loading temperature of the helium was cold enough to create solid oxygen (SOX), which exacerbates the possibility of oxygen becoming trapped as well as the likelihood of friction ignition.”

SpaceX says they will address the causes of the mishap through a mix of both short term and long term “corrective actions.”

“The corrective actions address all credible causes and focus on changes which avoid the conditions that led to these credible causes.”

The short term fixes involve simpler changes to the COPV configuration and modifying the helium loading conditions.

“In the short term, this entails changing the COPV configuration to allow warmer temperature helium to be loaded, as well as returning helium loading operations to a prior flight proven configuration based on operations used in over 700 successful COPV loads.”

So it remains to be seen if SpaceX continues the use of densified oxygen or not in the near term.

The long term fixes involve changing the COPV hardware itself and will take longer to implement. They are also likely to be more effective – but only time will tell.

“In the long term, SpaceX will implement design changes to the COPVs to prevent buckles altogether, which will allow for faster loading operations.”

Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 with the payload of 10 identical next generation IridiumNEXT communications satellites will take place from Space Launch Complex 4E on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California – assuming the required approval is first granted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

No Falcon 9 launch will occur until the FAA gives the ‘GO.’

Furthermore, in anticipation of announcing the targeted ‘Return to Flight’ launch date, technicians have already processed the Falcon 9 rocket for the ‘Return to Flight’ blastoff with the vanguard of a fleet of IridiumNEXT mobile voice and data relay satellites for Iridium Communications – as I reported last week in my story here – and subsequently tweeted by Iridium CEO Matt Desch saying “Nice recap.”

IridiumNEXT satellites being fueled, pressurized & stacked on dispenser tiers at Vandenberg AFB for Falcon 9 launch. Credit: Iridium

Last week, the first ten IridiumNEXT mobile voice and data relay satellites were fueled, stacked and tucked inside the nose cone of the Falcon 9 rocket designated as SpaceX’s ‘Return to Flight’ launcher in order to enable a blastoff as soon as possible after an approval is received from the FAA.

“Iridium is pleased with SpaceX’s announcement on the results of the September 1 anomaly as identified by their accident investigation team, and their plans to target a return to flight on January 8 with the first Iridium NEXT launch” Iridium Communications said on their website today, Jan. 2.

Another milestone to watch for is the first stage engine static fire test that SpaceX routinely conducts several days prior to the launch. Thats exactly the same type test where the Falcon 9 blew up in Florida some five minutes before the short Merlin 1D engine ignition to confirm readiness for the real launch that had been planned for 2 days later.

Iridium’s SpaceX Falcon9 rocket in processing at Vandenberg Air Force Base, getting ready for launch in early Jan. 2017. Credit: Iridium

The Iridium 1 mission is the first of seven planned Falcon 9 launches – totaling 70 satellites.

“Iridium is replacing its existing constellation by sending 70 Iridium NEXT satellites into space on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket over 7 different launches,” says Iridium.

The goal of this privately contracted mission is to deliver the first 10 Iridium NEXT satellites into low-earth orbit to inaugurate what will be a new constellation of satellites dedicated to mobile voice and data communications.

Iridium eventually plans to launch a constellation of 81 Iridium NEXT satellites into low-earth orbit.

“At least 70 of which will be launched by SpaceX,” per Iridium’s contract with SpaceX.

SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of commercial and human rated Falcon 9 rockets as well as the Falcon Heavy, as seen here during Dec 2016 with construction of a dedicated new transporter/erector. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Meanwhile pad 40, which was heavily damaged during the Sept. 1 explosion, is undergoing extensive repairs and refurbishments to bring it back online.

It is not known when pad 40 will be fit to resume Falcon 9 launches.

In the interim, SpaceX plans to initially resume launches from the Florida Space Coast at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) from pad 39A, the former shuttle pad that SpaceX has leased from NASA.

Commercial SpaceX launches at KSC could start from pad 39A sometime in early 2017 – after modifications for the Falcon 9 are completed.

Up close look at a SpaceX Falcon 9 second stage and payload fairing from the JCSAT-16 launch from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Both Falcon 9 rocket failures took place inside the second stage. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Sept. 1 calamity was the second Falcon 9 failure within 15 months time and called into question the rockets overall reliability. Both incidents involved the second stage helium system, but SpaceX maintains that they are unrelated.

The first Falcon 9 failure involved a catastrophic mid air explosion in the second stage about two and a half minutes after liftoff, during the Dragon CRS-7 cargo resupply launch for NASA to the International Space Station on June 28, 2015 – and witnessed by this author. The accident was traced to a failed strut holding the helium tank inside the liquid oxygen tank. The helium tank dislodged and ultimately ruptured the second stage as the first stage was still firing resulting in a total loss of the rocket and payload.

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

Ken Kremer

Iridium Satellites Fueled and Tucked In For SpaceX Falcon 9 ‘Return to Flight’ Blastoff

The first ten IridiumNEXT satellites are stacked and encapsulated in the Falcon 9 fairing for launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Ca., in early 2017. Credit: Iridium

Technicians have fueled, stacked and tucked the first ten advanced IridiumNEXT mobile voice and data relay satellites inside the nose cone of a Falcon 9 rocket designated as SpaceX’s ‘Return to Flight’ launcher – potentially as early as next week – from their west coast launch pad on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

“Milestone Alert: The first ten #IridiumNEXT satellites are stacked and encapsulated in the Falcon 9 fairing,” Iridium Communications announced on the company website on Thursday, Dec. 29.

The excitement of a possibly imminent liftoff is clearly building – at least for Iridium Communications and their CEO Matt Desch.

“Our first 10 #IridiumNEXT satellites are all fueled now, tucked in and dreaming of flying in space. Very. Soon. Happy Holidays!” Iridium Communications CEO Matt Desch tweeted on Christmas Day, Dec. 25, 2016.

But SpaceX is still dealing with the fallout from the catastrophic launch pad explosion that eviscerated a Falcon 9 and its expensive commercial payload in Florida without warning, during a routine fueling test on Sept. 1, 2016.

Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 with the payload of 10 identical next generation IridiumNEXT communications satellites from Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex 4-East could come as soon as next week – in early January 2017 perhaps as soon as Jan. 7.

IridiumNEXT satellites being fueled, pressurized & stacked on dispenser tiers at Vandenberg AFB for Falcon 9 launch. Credit: Iridium

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had said he hoped to resume Falcon 9 launches before the end of this year 2016 – while investigating the root cause of the devastating mishap.

But the launch has been repeatedly postponed and pushed off into 2017 while investigators plumb the data for clues and fix whatever flaws are uncovered.

“Iridium’s @Falcon9_rocket in processing at @VandenbergAFB, getting ready for our launch in early Jan. Progress! #Thistimeitsforreal!” Desch elaborated.

Nevertheless, there has been no official statement issued by either SpaceX or Iridium Communications announcing a specific target launch date.

And the liftoff is completely dependent on achieving FAA approval for the Falcon 9 launch.

“This launch is contingent upon the FAA’s approval of SpaceX’s return to flight following the anomaly that occurred on September 1, 2016 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida,” Iridium said in a prior statement, reported here.

All SpaceX Falcon 9 launches immediately ground to a halt following the colossal eruption of a fireball from the Falcon 9 at the launch pad that suddenly destroyed the rocket and completely consumed its $200 million Israeli Amos-6 commercial payload on Sept. 1 during a routine fueling and planned static fire engine test at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The explosive anomaly resulted from a “large breach” in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank and subsequent ignition of the highly flammable oxygen propellant.

Meanwhile, SpaceX and Iridium are preparing the payload and rocket for launch as soon as possible after FAA approval is granted.

“Satellites have been fueled, pressurized & dispenser tiers are being stacked as we move closer to first launch #IridiumNEXT #NEXTevolution,” Iridium elaborated with photos showing the recent processing in progress.

The Iridium mission is the first of seven planned Falcon 9 launches – totaling 70 satellites.

“Iridium is replacing its existing constellation by sending 70 Iridium NEXT satellites into space on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket over 7 different launches,” says Iridium.

“There were many challenges on the program, from orbit determination knowledge design, to encryption design, to integration and verification test planning, to planning for on orbit acceptance activities, but the team made it all come together and the satellites are ready for deployment to enhance the future of mobile satellite communications — I could not be more proud,” Joel Rademacher, Ph.D, Director, Systems Engineering for Iridium Next, said in a statement.

The goal of this privately contracted mission is to deliver the first 10 Iridium NEXT satellites into low-earth orbit to inaugurate what will be a new constellation of satellites dedicated to mobile voice and data communications.

Iridium eventually plans to launch a constellation of 81 Iridium NEXT satellites into low-earth orbit.

“At least 70 of which will be launched by SpaceX,” per Iridium’s contract with SpaceX.

Iridium’s SpaceX Falcon9 rocket in processing at Vandenberg Air Force Base, getting ready for launch in early Jan. 2017. Credit: Iridium

Besides the launch, SpaceX plans to continue its secondary objective of recovering the Falcon 9 first stage via a propulsive soft landing – as done several times previously and witnessed by this author.

The goal is to eventually recycle and reuse the first stage – and thereby dramatically slash launch costs per Musk’s vision.

This Falcon 9 has been outfitted with four landing lags and grid fins for a controlled landing on a tiny barge prepositioned in the Pacific Ocean several hundred miles off the west coast of California.

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

Desch says that all seven of his Falcon’s will be new – not resued.

“All our seven F9s are new,” Desch tweeted.

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

SpaceX maintains active launch pads on both the US East and West coasts.

On the Florida Space Coast, SpaceX plans to initially resume launches at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) from pad 39A, the former shuttle pad that SpaceX has leased from NASA.

Commercial SpaceX launches at KSC could start from pad 39A sometime in early 2017 – after modifications for the Falcon 9 are completed.

Meanwhile pad 40, which was heavily damaged during the Sept. 1 explosion, is undergoing extensive repairs and refurbishments to bring it back online.

Aerial view of pad and strongback damage at SpaceX Launch Complex-40 as seen from the VAB roof on Sept. 8, 2016 after fueling test explosion destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

It is not known when pad 40 will be fit to resume Falcon 9 launches.

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

Ken Kremer

Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. 1st stage booster landed safely at sea minutes later. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX and NASA Confirm Delay of First Crewed Dragon Flight to 2018

SpaceX Dragon V2 docks at the ISS. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Dragon V2 docks at the ISS. Credit: SpaceX

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Launching Americans back to space and the International Space Station (ISS) from American soil on American rockets via NASA’s commercial crew program (CCP) has just suffered another significant but not unexpected delay, with an announcement from NASA that the target date for inaugural crewed flight aboard a SpaceX commercial Crew Dragon has slipped significantly from 2017 to 2018.

NASA announced the revised schedule on Dec. 12 and SpaceX media affairs confirmed the details of the launch delay to Universe Today.

The postponement of the demonstration mission launch is the latest fallout from the recent launch pad explosion of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sept. 1 during final preparations and fueling operations for a routine preflight static fire test.

Since the Falcon 9 is exactly the same booster that SpaceX will employ to loft American astronauts in the SpaceX Crew Dragon to the space station, the stakes could not be higher with astronauts lives on the line.

Blastoff of the first Crew Dragon spacecraft on its first unmanned test flight is postponed from May 2017 to August 2017, according to the latest quarterly revision just released by NASA. Liftoff of the first piloted Crew Dragon with a pair of NASA astronauts strapped in has slipped from August 2017 to May 2018.

“The Commercial crew updated dates for Demo 1 (no crew) is Q4 2017,” SpaceX’s Phil Larson told Universe Today. “For Demo 2 (with 2 crew members) the updated commercial crew date is Q2 2018 [for Crew Dragon].”

Meet Dragon V2 - SpaceX CEO Elon pulls the curtain off manned Dragon V2 on May 29, 2014 for worldwide unveiling of SpaceX's new astronaut transporter for NASA. Credit: SpaceX
Meet Dragon V2 – SpaceX CEO Elon pulls the curtain off manned Dragon V2 on May 29, 2014 for worldwide unveiling of SpaceX’s new astronaut transporter for NASA. Credit: SpaceX

Although much has been accomplished since NASA’s commercial crew program started in 2010, much more remains to be done before NASA will approve these launches.

“The next generation of American spacecraft and rockets that will launch astronauts to the International Space Station are nearing the final stages of development and evaluation,” said NASA KSC public affairs officer Stephanie Martin.

Above all both of the commercial crew providers – namely Boeing and SpaceX – must demonstrate safe, reliable and robust spacecraft and launch systems.

“NASA’s Commercial Crew Program will return human spaceflight launches to U.S. soil, providing reliable and cost-effective access to low-Earth orbit on systems that meet our safety and mission requirements. To meet NASA’s requirements, the commercial providers must demonstrate that their systems are ready to begin regular flights to the space station.”

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL,  on Sept. 1, 2016.  A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on Sept. 1, 2016. A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport

These latest launch delays come on top of other considerable delays announced earlier this year when SpaceX has still hoping to launch the unpiloted Crew Dragon mission before the end of 2016 – prior to the Sept 1 launch pad catastrophe.

“We are finalizing the investigation of our Sept. 1 anomaly and are working to complete the final steps necessary to safely and reliably return to flight,” Larson told me.

“As this investigation has been conducted, our Commercial Crew team has continued to work closely with NASA and is completing all planned milestones for this period.”

SpaceX is still investigating the root causes of the Sept. 1 anomaly, working on fixes and implementing any design changes – as well as writing the final report that must be submitted to the FAA, before they can launch the planned ‘Return to Flight’ mission from their California launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

No launch can occur until the FAA grants a license after fully assessing the SpaceX anomaly report.

Last week SpaceX announced a delay in resuming launches at Vandenberg until no earlier than January 2017.

“We are carefully assessing our designs, systems, and processes taking into account the lessons learned and corrective actions identified. Our schedule reflects the additional time needed for this assessment and implementation,” Larson elaborated.

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

Boeing has likewise significantly postponed their debut unpiloted and piloted launches of their CST-100 Starliner astronaut space taxi by more than six months this year alone.

The first crewed Boeing Starliner is now slated for a launch in August 2018, possibly several months after SpaceX. But the schedules keep changing so it’s anyone’s guess as to when these commercial crew launches will actually occur.

Another big issue that has cropped up since the Sept. 1 pad disaster, regards the procedures and timing for fueling the Falcon 9 rocket with astronauts on board. SpaceX is proposing to load the propellants with the crew already on board, unlike the practice of the past 50 years where the astronauts climbed aboard after the extremely dangerous fueling operation was completed.

SpaceX proposes this change due to their recent use of superchilled liquid oxygen and resulting new operational requirement to fuel the rocket in the last 30 minutes prior to liftoff.

Although a SpaceX hazard report outlining these changes was approved by NASA’s Safety Technical Review Board in July 2016, an objection was raised by former astronaut Maj. Gen. Thomas Stafford and the International Space Station Advisory Committee.

“SpaceX has designed a reliable fueling and launch process that minimizes the duration and number of personnel exposed to the hazards of launching a rocket,” Larson explained.

“As part of this process, the crew will safely board the Crew Dragon, ground personnel will depart, propellants will be carefully loaded and then the vehicle will launch. During this time the Crew Dragon launch abort system will be enabled.”

SpaceX says they have performed a detailed safety analysis with NASA of all potential hazards with this process.

“The hazard report documenting the controls was approved by NASA’s Safety Technical Review Board in July 2016.”

SpaceX representatives recently met with Stafford and the ISS review board to address their concerns, but the outcome and whether anything was resolved is not known.

“We recently met with Maj. Gen. Stafford and the International Space Station Advisory Committee to provide them detailed information on our approach and answer a number of questions. SpaceX and NASA will continue our ongoing assessment while keeping the committee apprised of our progress,” Larson explained.

The Falcon 9 fueling procedure issue relating to astronaut safety must be satisfactorily resolved before any human launch with Dragon can take place, and will be reported on further here.

Whenever the Crew Dragon does fly it will launch from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at Launch Complex 39A – the former shuttle launch pad which SpaceX has leased from NASA.

SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of the Falcon Heavy and human rated Falcon 9.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of the Falcon Heavy and human rated Falcon 9. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX is currently renovating pad 39A for launches of manned Falcon 9/Dragon missions. And the firm has decided to use it for commercial missions as well while pad 40 is repaired following the pad accident.

This week a Falcon 9 first stage was spotted entering Cape Canaveral to prepare for an upcoming launch.

SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrives at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Dec. 12, 2016 for launch sometime in 2017. Credit: Julian Leek
SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrives at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Dec. 12, 2016 for launch sometime in 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

Getting our astronauts back to space with home grown technology is proving to be far more difficult and time consuming than anyone anticipated – despite the relative simplicity of developing capsule-like vehicles vs. NASA’s highly complex and hugely capable Space Shuttle vehicles.

And time is of the essence for the commercial crew program.

Because for right now, the only path to the ISS for all American astronauts is aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule through seats purchased by NASA – at about $82 million each. But NASA’s contract with Roscosmos for future flight opportunities runs out at the end of 2018. So there is barely a few months margin left before the last available contracted seat is taken.

It takes about 2 years lead time for Russia to build the Soyuz and NASA is not planning to buy any new seats.

So any further delays to SpaceX or Boeing could result in an interruption of US and partner flights to the ISS in 2019 – which is primarily American built.

Exterior of the Crew Dragon capsule. Credit: SpaceX.
Exterior of the Crew Dragon capsule. Credit: SpaceX.

Since its inception, the commercial crew program has been severely and shortsightedly underfunded by the US Congress. They have repeatedly cut the Administration’s annual budget requests, delaying forward progress and first crewed flights from 2015 to 2018, and forcing NASA to buy additional Soyuz seats from Russia at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

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

Ken Kremer