Yesterday, less than 48 hours after the last Falcon 9 launch (from KSC’s LC-39A), a second Falcon 9 blasted off. This one launched from Vandenberg AFB’s SLC-4 and delivered the next ten Iridium Next satellites. Once enough Iridum Next spacecraft are delivered to orbit, they will begin to replace the famous initial constellation, which is nearing the end of its service life. Alas, the new spacecraft are much smaller than the original Iridiums and will not wow spotters with bright flares with each pass.
The Falcon 9 for this flight is a full thrust Falcon 9 equipped with a new, all-titanium set of grid fins. They’re heavier than the older ones, but can handle larger loads and provide more control authority. This will be critical when the Falcon Heavy’s three cores attempt to return later this year.
This spacecraft’s first stage was successfully recovered by the drone ship Just Read The Instructions, and will eventually be reflown.
The CRS-11 Dragon mission is now underway, the first with a reflown Dragon capsule. (The heatshield is new, as of course is the unpressurized trunk section and the solar panels, as these are discarded with each flight, burning up while the pressurized module returns to the Earth.) The Falcon 9 rocket was still brand-new, but the first stage will eventually be reused; it completed the fifth successful landing at Cape Canaveral.
This was the one hundredth launch from LC-39A.
Here’s the replay of the SpaceX webcast (jump ahead 16 minutes for the launch):
Falcon 9 has lifted its heaviest payload to geosychronous orbit to date: Inmarsat-5 Flight 4, a massive commsat designed to support inflight WiFi and mobile broadband. The spacecraft was originally slated to fly on SpaceX’s gigantic Falcon Heavy, but the increase in Falcon 9 capacity with the current version (v1.2) meant that if the booster recovery was abandoned, they could actually do the mission with this vehicle.
This is the SpaceX live feed, captured for our enjoyment. The feed starts 11 minutes into the video, and launch is at 20 minutes.
The first reflown Falcon 9 first stage core has completed its second mission, and been recovered successfully on a barge at sea. They also apparently recovered half of the payload fairing, which I didn’t know they were even thinking about attempting. The upper stage went on to deliver SES-10 to the correct geosynchronous transfer orbit.
The first reflown Falcon 9 core is on the pad at LC-39A, and has completed a hotfire test. Due to the test having slipped to today, launch is now targeted for Thursday. Payload was not installed on the rocket for this test; the rocket will be brought down and back to the assembly building for attachment of SES-10 payload before being rolled back to the pad later this week.
If that was exciting, here’s another hotfire test for you, this time of an RS-25 engine in the venerable A-1 test stand, originally built to test Saturn S-II stages. This engine design will also be making reflights, but that’s less surprising, as the RS-25 is better known as the Space Shuttle Main Engine. This particular test, performed late last week at Stennis, was to validate a new engine controller. The engine used for this test was Engine No. 0528. It has never been to space; it’s a ground test article. Although designed as the world’s first fully reusable liquid rocket engine for first stage ascent, the SLS program is expected to exhaust the entire supply of RS-25s.
SpaceX completed another uneventful climb to orbit out of the historic LC-39A, placing EchoStar 22 into geosychronous transfer orbit. This was a less exciting launch than most Falcon 9 flights of late, as EchoStar 22 is very near the absolute limit of Falcon 9’s capacity. Therefore, the landing legs and grid fins were omitted from the vehicle, as there would be no propellant left to attempt a return. The first stage was expended with no attempt to recover. This was also the first night launch from LC-39A in nearly eight years — the last night launch from this pad was STS-131, with the Space Shuttle Discovery, on April 10, 2010. The first night launch from this pad was Apollo 17, on December 7, 1972. It gives me joy to know that this will not be the last one:
Upcoming launches the remainder of March include an H-2 from Japan, a Delta IV from Cape Canaveral (was supposed to have launched, but was bumped to give Falcon 9 a second launch attempt), an Ariane V from South America, an Atlas V from Cape Canaveral, and finally the groundbreaking reflight of a Falcon 9 first stage on the SES-10 launch from Cape Canaveral (currently set for March 27). As with any launches, these dates are subject to change for technical or weather reasons.
Yes, you heard that right. They have yet to launch their crewed spacecraft as far as the ISS, but this week they announced that two undisclosed wealthy individuals have approached them about riding a Dragon capsule, boosted by their soon-to-fly Falcon Heavy, in a trip around the Moon. (I’m betting they’re talking a lunar swingby mission, not an orbital mission.) They plan on conducting this mission by the end of 2018.
For perspective, there are only two flights of Falcon Heavy currently on the manifest (the demo launch and a USAF experimental mission, one this year and one the next), and the crewed Dragon isn’t set to fly to the ISS until the fourth quarter of 2018 as it is. (And the GAO recently expressed serious doubt about that even happening.) So this is pretty ambitious. Exciting, and very very cool, but certainly a stretch goal.
Who are the two individuals? SpaceX isn’t saying. They did, however, say they’d be happy to give NASA dibs on flying to the Moon aboard Dragon first — an announcement which came as a great shock to NASA, since they found out about all of this the same time the rest of us did.
This is sure to shake things up, and I’d not put odds on whether or not they’ll manage this. I do have to wonder whether they’re overextending themselves. They have put a lot of very ambitious challenges in front of themselves. From a program risk perspective, this doesn’t seem like a good idea. But if they pull it off . . . hoo boy. There’s quite a payoff in terms of bragging rights, and it’s definitely a strong step towards their ultimate goal: Mars.