Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: SpaceX
It’s sweaty-palm time at Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). If all goes well, their first Falcon 9 test rocket will blaze a trail into the Florida skies from a Cape Canaveral launch pad on Friday, May 28th.
Tensions are higher than the rocket’s proposed flight path because the future of America’s human spaceflight program may very well ride on the success or failure of this launch.
A perfect launch would green-light at least two more test launches culminating in the first private shipments of cargo (and eventually crew) to the International Space Station. A badly failed launch may lead Congress to nix NASA’s most recent human spaceflight proposals, forcing NASA to continue development of its own crew launch vehicle, the Ares I. Results between these two extremes would leave America’s public space agency and its human spaceflight plans in limbo.
Sources inside SpaceX, NASA, and the US Air Force confirm the May 28th launch date with a contingency date of May 29th. Bad weather often forces launch dates to slip, but in this case a brand new launch support system seems a far more likely culprit.
Thrills and spills of demo rocket launches
The first launch of any new rocket system usually encounters several unexpected anomalies. Sometimes the launch team detects these anomalies prior to launch, but often an inaugural test flight generates fiery footage on the evening news.
This time, a fiery failure would carry significant consequences. NASA wants to transport cargo and crew to low Earth orbit (LEO) on private rockets like the Falcon 9. Many space industry analysts have loudly criticized this move due to lost jobs at NASA and a perception that private industry isn’t up for the task. However unfair it may be, any early Falcon 9 failures will give critics plenty of ammunition to attack NASA and its new agenda.
Check back here for updates as the launch drama unfolds.
Also, try to be patient because the launch dates could easily slip again. This Falcon 9 inaugural launch is already at least a year overdue, due to Air Force range issues, technical glitches, additional safety measures, and a whole slew of red tape.
For example, the Air Force forced a recent delay prior to approving the Falcon 9's launch abort system, i.e. the system allowing launch controllers to blow up the rocket if it veers off course. Since the safety folks seem to have approved the May 28th launch, we can assume the new launch abort system has passed its inspection with flying colors (pun intended).
UPDATE (May 28):
The launch schedule has slipped to June 2 or 3 (Wednesday/Thursday next week). Apparently a schedule slip with an earlier Delta 4 launch forced the Falcon 9 launch delay. The Air Force has also not finished all approvals related to the launch abort system (discussed above).
Delays like this must be extremely frustrating for SpaceX. You can build the best, cheapest rocket in the world, but external issues like insurance, range safety, paperwork, and competition for launch services can still escalate costs and hijack schedules. This IS more than just rocket science, after all.
UPDATE (June 2):
Another launch date slip, again due to Air Force approval delays. SpaceX now plans to launch on June 4th with the 5th as a contingency date. Here are some details from the latest company statement:
Launch Window Opens: 11:00 AM Eastern / 8:00 AM Pacific / 1500 UTC
Launch window lasts 4 hours. SpaceX has also reserved a second launch day on Saturday 5 June, with the same hours.
As is typical in Florida this time of year, forecasters rate the weather as "iffy." Current estimates predict only a 60% chance of good weather on both days. Stay tuned...