Lifting off on time at 5:41 pm ET from Cape Canaveral’s SLC-40, the first SpaceX Falcon 9 booster carrying a commercial communications satellite has successfully placed its payload, the SES-8 comsat into geostationary transfer orbit. Tonight’s launch was the culmination of a long and at times trying campaign which saw two previous attempts over the last 8 days scrubbed.
More significant than overcoming the scrubs however, was the fact that after encountering difficulty with a second stage engine re-start on the F9 V1.1’s initial launch out of Vandenberg in September, the debut East Coast flight for the booster went off apparently without a hitch, first placing the second stage and payload into a preliminary parking orbit, and then as it crossed the equator re-ignited to raise the orbit’s apogee to 80,000 kilometers.
Moments later, SpaceX confirmed successful payload separation, a flash of welcome news which was soon buttressed by reports from SES that the company had acquired a signal from the satellite and it was in good health. Although coverage of this flight will naturally focus on a “third time is the charm theme,” there are two other significant numbers to consider as well. First, this marks the seventh successful flight of a Falcon 9 booster, five of the Block I configuration, and two of the radically updated Falcon 9 v1.1.
In accomplishing this feat, SpaceX has, in a manner, successfully flown completely out of the Aerospace Corporation’s 3/7 reliability rule which suggests that a new launch vehicle is most likely to fail sometime in the first three flights due to a design flaw, and in the first seven due to a manufacturing flaw. Purists will point out that since the original F9 was so thoroughly overhauled, the rule started over with launch number six and the maiden flight of the F9 V1.1 While perhaps technically accurate, the symbolism is quite important nonetheless.
The second major number to consider is “two,” which the minimal number of consecutive successful flights required under the SpaceX/Air Force CRADA agreement which is a prerequisite for the company to be considered for launch services under the Air Force’s EELV program, currently the sole domain of monopoly launch provider and hyper expensive United Launch Alliance. While the Air Force has not made a formal statement regarding the first SpaceX flight in September, under a normal definition of “mission success” the delivery of the CASSIOPE satellite to the intended orbited counted, whereas the optional second stage re-fire test did not. Taken together with tonight’s seemingly perfect launch, SpaceX appears to have crossed this vital threshold. With the Air Force set to negotiate further purchases under the EELV program with ULA, the timing could not be better, and may perhaps give pause for reflection.
In any event, preparations for the next launch, that of the Thaicom-6 satellite are already underway, with a likely launch date nominally scheduled for December 20th.