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.
The cargo trips to the ISS continue, with the CRS-10 Dragon arriving a day late (after waving off the first rendezvous due to faulty GPS data) and Progress MS-05 blasting off and returning the Progress capsule to flight after the unfortunate launch vehicle failure that destroyed the last one. Progress Ms-05 also capped off the venerable Soyuz-U, as it was the final flight of that rocket variant.
Dragon has been berthed at the nadir port of the Harmony node, and Progress MS-05 is en route to dock with the nadir port of the Pirs compartment.
The final Soyuz-U launch:
And a timelapse of the Dragon berthing:
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.
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.