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.
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.
First off, the good news! SpaceX is now confident enough in their procedural fixes for Falcon 9 that they have announced their next launch date:
December 16early January, from Vandenberg AFB. Payload would be a set of ten next-generation Iridium satellites. [Edited per SpaceX news release 12/7. Original date was reported on SpaceflightNow, but I’m not sure where they got it, since it doesn’t appear anywhere on SpaceX’s website.]
Second, Roscosmos has convened a failure investigation board and begun combing through the data from the failure of Soyuz-U with Progress MS-04. This was to have been the next-to-last flight of the Soyuz-U. Everything appears to have been nominal through the first and second stages of flight, but during the third stage, something went badly wrong. One account has a premature engine shutdown command issued due to a deviation from flight path so severe the third stage’s gyro stabilization system stalled, and then Progress breaking away due to the strain. Another account has the flight proceeding normally until for some unexplained reason the spacecraft separated. It will take time to sift through the data and come to an answer; at present in Russian media, it seems the respective manufacturers of the rocket and the spacecraft are attempting to point fingers at one another.
Meanwhile, the impact region has been located. Russian authorities are combing the Tuva region for debris, and one piece appears to have been found by residents of Tos-Tevek, possibly a propellant tank (as Progress carries not just its own propellant but also supplies for ISS propulsion system).
SpaceX has released some information about the Falcon 9 mishap; they have managed to reproduce the failure condition on the ground at their Hawthorne, Texas test facility, purely by manipulating the helium load process. So that’s good news, because it means there’s no hardware that needs redesign in order to return to flight. Lots of hardware that needs repair at SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral, of course, but that’s not a showstopper since they still have SLC-4E at Vandenberg, and LC-39A at KSC is nearly ready. It would appear that when they modified their procedures and requalified everything with the superchilled LOX loading, the one thing they didn’t fully analyze was their original helium loading procedure. There’s something about it that is able to cause uneven heat distribution across the composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) that make up the helium tanks. COPVs are particularly vulnerable to issues with uneven heating, since their strength comes from the combined force of millions of wound fibers. Disrupt just a few and the whole thing comes apart like a house of cards. They are widely used in the industry, however, because of a very attractive combination of high strength and low mass.
With this in mind, SpaceX is now targeting mid-December for their return to flight, which is amazingly fast in this industry. They are fortunate that it was not an equipment problem, and even more fortunate that they happen to have a spare launch complex; that’s a very unusual circumstance, so the timing was fortuitous. It appears the return-to-flight mission will likely be the inaugural LC-39A flight, with Echostar 23, a commercial geosynchronous commsat, as the payload.
Meanwhile, this whole incident is raising additional questions with NASA’s astronaut office, wanting to fully understand whether it’s going to be safe to, for the first time in history, allow crew to board the vehicle before propellant loading. NASA was aware of that practice prior to the accident, and had concerns even then, but not enough to ask SpaceX to preserve the lower-thrust Falcon 9 that doesn’t require late propellant loading, nor to ask them to accelerate the methane-burning Merlin variant. So I personally suspect they will ultimately allow SpaceX to use Full Thrust Falcon 9 for crewed flights. This is just giving the safety people more urgency with their questions.