Update: Following this evening’s abort, SpaceX released this statement
“We observed unexpected readings with the first stage liquid oxygen system so we decided to investigate. The launch vehicle and satellite are in great shape and we are looking forward to the next launch opportunity on Thursday at 5:38 p.m. Eastern time.”
SpaceX Prepares to Enter the Fray
Eleven years after its founding , SpaceX stands poised to make its first commercial geostationary transfer launch this evening in a launch window extending from 5:37 to 6:43 p.m. EST. After conducting its maiden flight earlier this year from Vandenberg, Ca., a Falcon 9 V1.1 is now standing on its pad at Cape Canaveral’s SLC-40, and housed inside its 17’ diameter payload fairing is the 6,918 lb. SES-8 Comsat, waiting for its ride to GTO, and an eventual destination at 95 degrees East, where it will provide service to South Asia and the Asia Pacific regions.
The mission profile calls for the Falcon to place the satellite into a transfer orbit of 295 x 80,000 km at 20.75 degrees inclination after which the on-board propulsion system will gradually shift the spacecraft to its assigned slot.
Although SES-8, built by Orbital Sciences, is a fairly modest comsat in terms of its overall mass, today’s launch, marking the entrance of a transformational vehicle in Falcon 9, promises to be one of the most significant in the history of the industry, and it is safe to say that absolutely everyone will be observing it with much more than the usual degree of apprehension which marks any space launch.
For SpaceX, whose employees now number approximately 3,500, the SES-8 mission marks an all- important first launch into one of the market segments which is considered a key to its long term success. If that, and the East Coast debut of a new rocket were not enough, there is also the issue of the aborted second stage re-start which took place on the booster’s first flight. Working closely with SES-8, a process complicated by ITAR regulations, SpaceX, along with help from NASA and the Air Force has determined the re-start problem was caused when colder than expected temperatures in space, aggravated by an impingement of liquid oxygen bleeding off from the upper stage, froze the TEA-TAB igniter fluid, preventing the Merlin 1-D Vac engine from fully igniting.
(Clearly, the company’s personnel have been working too hard lately, and missed the constant re-runs of Star Trek II, TWOK, leading up to this summer’s Into Darkness. Otherwise, surely someone would have remembered Khan’s famous line from the original, “Revenge is a dish best served cold, and it is very cold in space.”)
Having diagnosed the problem, and as Elon Musk put it in a press conference yesterday, “no stone hasn’t been turned over at least twice” both SpaceX and SES are confident as they can reasonably be in an industry where the margins for error are so thin. Along those lines, today’s launch will not include a recovery attempt, even though according to Musk, SES was willing to sign off on one. Instead, SpaceX will preserve the extra fuel and the margin it allows to maximize the opportunity for mission success in the event of an engine out condition. With the 9 first-stage Merlin 1-D’s being operated at only 85% of their ultimate intended rated power of 165,000 lbs. sea level thrust, the new booster is still a long way from showing its full capabilities, a fact which may be of thin comfort to competitors watching from the immediate vicinity of SLC-40, as well as from around the world.
If it is successful today, the Falcon 9 v1.1 will have completed two of the three missions required for consideration by the Air Force under the EELV program’s CRADA agreement. It will also have satisfied the requirement of two successful flights in a row. With the launch of Thaicom-6 in the on deck position, the third flight called for by the requirements is barely a month away. Though actually receiving one of 14 possible launch orders outlined under the EELV program’s New Entrant criteria is a process which could take quite a bit of time, successfully navigating the protocol on the first three available attempts would send a very strong signal to the Department of Defense and Congress that a new era has begun.
As for commercial competitors Arianespace, Proton, Sea Launch, and China’s Great Wall Industries Corp, the commercial debut of the Falcon 9 v1.1 marks the beginning of what has so far been their own last line of defense, the question of whether or not SpaceX can achieve and maintain reliability, and then establish the launch tempo required to work through its nearly 50 flight manifest. It is a question which cannot be answered in a single launch, but if SES-8 is placed into GTO without incident, the answer may come all too quickly anyway.
Today’s launch will be webcast by SpaceX at spacex.com/webcast, with pre-launch coverage beginning at approximately 5:00 p.m. EST.