I have two very interesting news items concerning SpaceX, and both, if all goes according to plan, will be huge boosts to the private space company.
The first news is that it’s planning a return to flight mission for later in December, sending 11 Orbcomm communication satellites into orbit. This will be its first flight of the Falcon 9 rocket after a June 28, 2015, launch failed spectacularly.
That failure was blamed on a faulty internal strut that held a tank of pressurized helium steady inside the rocket. When the strut failed, the tank ripped free, hit an oxygen tank, and, um, that didn’t end well.
Since then there have been several upgrades made to the rocket, including new Merlin engines that are rated for higher thrust. All together, the upgrades should boost payload capacity by as much as 30 percent. SpaceFlightNow has more details.
Rumors are also flying that SpaceX will attempt to land the first stage booster back at Cape Canaveral! These rumors have not been confirmed by the company, I’ll note. One of the crucial planks on which SpaceX is betting is the ability to refurbish and reuse the first stage Falcon booster, which is far cheaper than building a new one for every launch. SpaceX has made a few attempts to land a booster on a floating platform; these have come very close to success, but not quite achieving it.
The plan all along was to eventually bring them back down vertically on dry land, and SpaceX recently leased a spot at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to use as a landing pad. Hopefully we’ll hear soon if it’s planning on attempting a landing there.
The date for the launch has not yet been set. Stay Tuned.
Update, Dec. 10, 19:30 UTC: It looks like the launch will be on or about Dec. 19. Elon Musk tweeted about it:
Aiming for Falcon rocket static fire at Cape Canaveral on the 16th and launch about three days later— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 10, 2015
The static fire is a test firing of the engines with the rocket bolted down, to make sure everything is ready to go.
The second piece of news is even more exciting: NASA has ordered its first crewed launch to the International Space Station from SpaceX! That launch has not been scheduled yet, but in general the contract is ordered two to three years in advance to give time for the contractor to get ready. It seems likely that the mission will go before the end of 2017, but we’ll see.
SpaceX has announced it wants to do a full-up test of the rocket and Dragon crew capsule before the end of 2016, and has said it’d like to launch the crewed mission by March 2017.
But again, we’ll see. Congress has been dragging its feet funding NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, opting instead to feed the beast that is the Orion capsule + Space Launch System rocket. If the commercial program had been fully funded all along, we’d have already seen crewed launches by now.
This is very important. NASA spends a fortune funneling money to Russia, the only country capable of sending humans into space right now (besides China, and NASA is forbidden from working with them). Russia hasn’t been shy about gouging for those seats, too, and it’s not like we want to line Putin’s coffers right now. So the sooner we can launch Americans into space on American rockets, the better.
Mind you, NASA already ordered a crew launch from Boeing on their CST-100 vehicle. It’s not clear which company will launch first, or even when these flights will be. But I am very happy indeed to see NASA finally being able to write these checks.