SpaceX’s Future Could Hinge on Saturday’s Launch
SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) is going to try again and it can’t afford to miss this time, after its rival, United Launch Alliance (ULA), successfully deployed the Orbital ATK-made “Cygnus” spacecraft on a space mission delivering a number of items, including a 3D printer, to the International Space Station (ISS). Nevertheless, a U.S. Congressional ban on the importing of the Russian-made “RD-180” engines has compromised ULA’s future missions until a suitable replacement becomes operational. Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has no propulsion supply issues.
SpaceX has received U.S. Air Force certification for future satellite launch missions, while ULA, ironically, given its traditional defense contractor background and that it is owned by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, decided not to bother with submitting tenders for the time being.
SpaceX is ready to launch its “Falcon 9” on December 19 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, as Musk himself confirmed via Twitter. This is SpaceX’s first launch since the failure suffered by the Falcon 9 that exploded in flight 139 seconds after takeoff on its way to the ISS.
SpaceX’s new mission will send 11 satellites into orbit on behalf of the U.S.-based Orbcomm; more importantly, for SpaceX’s long-term success, the mission will offer an opportunity to test the latest version of the Falcon 9.
Can SpaceX Compete?
The new rocket is capable of delivering 30% higher output than the previous model and also has improvements aimed at the controlled landing feature, an aspect that Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin showed off a few weeks ago after a sub-orbital flight with its own reusable rocket, “Blue Shepard,” leading the race for space tourism—if not for more substantial space exploration.
SpaceX still aims to develop reusable rockets capable of fulfilling multiple missions in order to reduce costs and to fill in the hefty gap left after NASA mothballed the Space Shuttle program. In November, SpaceX also scored a major deal with NASA, as the agency confirmed that Elon Musk’s company will deploy its first manned space mission, ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station by 2017. (Source: “SpaceX Gets Huge Contract for its First Manned Space Flight,” Fortune, November 20, 2015.)
Last year, the space agency tentatively awarded a $2.6-billion contract to SpaceX to carry crew to space. NASA’s announcement on Friday formalizes the deal, which involves SpaceX loading its “Crew Dragon” spacecraft with astronauts and sending them beyond the stratosphere.
Therefore, December 19, 2015 represents a key date for SpaceX, which will attempt, after more failures, most recently with the crash on a floating platform on the Atlantic Ocean, to land vertically and score major points in the race for commercial orbital flights.
SpaceX has recently signed a $2.6-billion contract with NASA for four different missions. Blue Origin, meanwhile, is not SpaceX’s main competitor. The real competitor in the space race, so reminiscent of the plot in the 1965 British movie Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, remains Orbital ATK, which has yet to recover from the explosion of the “Antares” rocket after it was launched from Wallops Island in Virginia in October 2014.
The Antares program has suffered a major setback and until it is resolved, it will have to rely on ULA’s “Atlas V.” This is why it is crucial for SpaceX to succeed in the forthcoming attempt. The explosion was caused by excess pressure in the liquid oxygen tank in the upper module of the launcher.
Elon Musk tweeted SpaceX’s return to space, noting that on December 16, the Falcon 9 will be fired up for a test ahead of the launching attempt three days later. (Source: “SpaceX Looks To Return To Flight Dec. 19 After Failed Mission Last June,” Space Coast Daily, June 12, 2015.) Modifications to the Falcon 9 should avoid unpleasant surprises, but it is not yet confirmed whether the launch will include a controlled landing test for the first stage and if this will take place on land, rather than a floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean.