This morning, a Falcon 9 rocket roared into space from Kennedy Space Center’s LC-39A, the first commercial launch to lift off from this NASA launch facility. (Previous Florida launches of the Falcon 9 were from the neighboring Cape Canaveral Air Station, operated by the USAF.) Fittingly, this was still a NASA mission; the payload is the CRS-10 Dragon cargo mission to the International Space Station. But the next flight won’t be; the next flight will deliver the EchoStar 23 commercial commsat to geosynchronous transfer orbit.
LC-39A was originally built to support launches of the gigantic Saturn V for the Apollo mission, and so everything is proportionately gigantic on this pad. Falcon 9 is the smallest rocket ever to fly from it, but later it is planned to support the massive Falcon Heavy, a triple-core variant that will be the most powerful rocket in the world when it flies, and that is the real reason for using this pad.
Today’s mission was completely successful, including the first daylight shore landing of a Falcon 9 first stage. That stage landed on the existing SpaceX landing pad at Cape Canaveral. And there’s some great footage. 😉
And here is spectacular drone photography of the landing:
The historic return to flight for LC39A, last used for STS-135 and still sporting most of the Shuttle-era Fixed Service Structure and Rotating Service Structure, has been delayed at least a day, after a scrub at T-15 seconds. The launch was set to take off this morning, but was scrubbed due to “slightly odd” behavior in the upper stage — a routine preflight hydraulics check revealed something off-nominal in the behavior of an upper stage steering hydraulic piston (presumably part of the engine gimbaling system). The Falcon 9 with Dragon attached has been lowered back to the horizontal position, but SpaceX is pressing ahead towards the second opportunity, tomorrow at 9:38:59 a.m. EST. This will be the first commercial spaceflight from Kennedy Space Center. (Prior Falcon 9’s launched from Air Force pads.)
Meanwhile, in other KSC news, a NOTAM (Notice To Airmen) was issued earlier this week which strongly suggested the X-37 that has been orbiting the Earth for nearly two years might be coming down again. The NOTAM expired the same time the range opened up for Falcon 9. It seems plausible, then, that X-37 may make a landing attempt once the Eastern Range becomes available again.
Stuff going up, and stuff coming back down . . . it’s gotta be exciting at the Cape and on Merritt Island!
As part of routine preparations for the upcoming Dragon flight to the ISS, SpaceX has also passed a historic milestone: allowing the flame trench at LC-39A to taste fire again.
Ignition is around two minutes into the video. Several things to note in this video: the extra-large Falcon 9 strongback, designed to support the Falcon Heavy, the Shuttle-era hardware still resident (particularly the Fixed Service Structure and Rotating Service Structure, although both have been stripped of most of their equipment, as well as the huge Apollo-era water tower for the sound suppression system), and the distant white shape of the SpaceX Falcon 9 assembly building at LC-39A. Never before have rockets been assembled at LC-39A; the pad was built for the gigantic Saturn V, which was assembled in the VAB and then ponderously rolled to the pad, and then the same strategy was employed for the Space Shuttle program. But Falcon 9 is a much simpler vehicle, and does not require such a large assembly hall as the VAB.
The Falcon 9 hotfire test concluded successfully. The vehicle will be lowered and pulled into the assembly hall for attachment of the Dragon spacecraft. After returning to the pad with payload installed, Falcon 9 is slated to lift off February 18 on a mission to the ISS, returning LC-39A to service for the first time since 2011. SpaceX has additional flights already manifested for LC-39A; the next will be EchoStar 23 no earlier than February 28, and SES 10 sometime in March. The SES 10 launch will be closely watched, as it will feature the first reflown Falcon 9 core.
Just for fun reference, here’s the last flight from LC-39A:
The Falcon 9 first stage that placed the first flight of Iridium Next spacecraft into orbit has returned to land, coming ashore on its drone barge “Just Read The Instructions” at the Port of Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, the first reflown booster has been announced: as rumored, the customers is SES, and in fact the first flown booster will carry their SES 10 payload in just a month’s time. SpaceX has a very busy plate ahead of them, catching up from their hiatus, and so Falcon 9 will actually manage to fly three more times before the SES 10 mission.
After the shocking loss of the last Falcon 9, the rocket roared well and truly back into business today. They had been slightly delayed by the much needed rains that have come to California, but today the weather was suitable and launch occurred on time and on target, with a successful barge recovery at sea of the first stage – the first from Vandenberg. The Jason-3 launch a year ago was the first attempt to recover a Falcon 9 in the Pacific; it successfully soft-landed, but one of the landing legs failed to lock allowing it to fall over and explode. This one was flawless, and the barge will return to shore in the next couple of days — I believe to San Diego, since that’s where SpaceX recovers their Dragons.
The payload is the first flight of the Iridium NEXT constellation, which uses a brand-new multi-satellite deployment system that appears to have worked flawlessly, deploying all ten spacecraft correctly into their high inclination orbit.
The first two launches of 2017 are complete: a Long March 3B carrying a technology demonstrator payload to geosynchronous orbit, and the first commercial Kuaizhou flight.
Long March 3B blasted off from Xichang Space Center last Thursday:
Close on the heels of that flight, a solid-prop Kuaizhou 1A rocket made its first commercial flight, launching from Jiuquan Space Center. This is the rocket’s third flight, but the first with a paying customer other than the Chinese government. Kuaizhou was developed as a low-cost rapid-response rocket that could compete favorably with the increasing range of commercial options presently on the market. The payload is a set of small commercial imaging satellites.
Falcon 9 was expected to also launch by now, but unfortunately the wild and wet weather currently soaking California has delayed the flight. The weather is not expected to clear up before they butt up against time scheduled for an Atlas V dress rehearsal, so the next launch opportunity is January 14, weather permitting. The FAA signed off on the accident investigation and gave the green light for the launch attempt a few days ago, so once the skies dry up again, they’ll be good to go.
After the shocking pre-launch explosion of a Falcon 9 last September, destroying the payload and severely damaging the pad, SpaceX has announced a launch date for their return-to-flight. The SLC-40 pad at Cape Canaveral is still not in usable condition, but SLC-4E at Vandenberg is of course perfectly fine; that’s where the next flight, with 10 Iridum NEXT satellites on board, will launch.
Pending FAA approval after submission of their failure investigation findings, the Iridium launch is expected to occur this Sunday, January 8. SpaceX has a very full backlog that it will need to start working on right after that, but as SLC-40 will take time to repair, the next Florida launch (Echostar 23) will be from the venerable LC-39A at Kennedy Space Center, on Merritt Island. LC-39A was originally built for the Saturn V, then modified for the Space Shuttle, and now is nearly ready to support Falcon 9. Both SLC-4E and LC-39A will be capable of hosting the enormous Falcon Heavy, which SpaceX hopes to fly twice this year if all goes well — one test flight, and then the first operational flight on behalf of the USAF. Meanwhile, cargo Dragon flights are scheduled to resume in February, and SpaceX tentatively plans to make their first uncrewed test flight of the crewed Dragon later this year. However, their manifest is so full that even slight delays could push that into 2018. Their ultimate dream has always been to fly humans, but they are committed to meeting their commercial obligations as well.