Falcon 9: stand by for return to flight!

Falcon 9 stands atop its pad at Cape Canaveral, ready to lift off tomorrow (weather permitting), for the return-to-flight mission.  This trip will feature the new, lengthened Falcon 9 core which will permit flights with heavier payloads or higher-energy orbits, and it may also feature something else: the first flyback return to land.  The FAA has not yet cleared the rocket to attempt a landing on US soil, so they are prepping one of their ocean-going landing barges, but they hope to land on a pad they’ve constructed at the former SLC-13 (an old Atlas site decomissioned in the late 70s).

This would give them the edge back in the race against Blue Origin.  The secretive company headed by Jeff Bezos surprised everyone recently by seizing the record for the first rocket to fly from the ground into space and then land intact under its own power at the launch site, reminding more casual observers that SpaceX’s real adversary may not be the old guard of ULA but Blue Origins, another startup which has made some very impressive advances.  (Blue Origin has, for instance, managed the impressive feat of displacing Rocketdyne from contention for the US-built engine that will power Atlas V’s successor, Vulcan.)  But if this flight is successful, it will seize the reusable rocket lead back from Blue Origin, by accomplishing the first landing of a rocket that has not only reached space but was part of an orbital mission (which means it has to travel much faster and further before it can return to its launch site).

So cross your fingers, and here’s to a successful flight!  The payload for tomorrow’s flight will be a set of eleven Orbcomm satellites; the next scheduled flight will be the return to flight for Dragon.  Tomorrow’s launch window opens at 8:29PM EST (7:29PM CST, 0129 GMT on Monday), and closes almost instantaneously, so weather will have to be perfect.

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