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SpaceX Falcon rockets win third consecutive NASA launch contract

SpaceX’s Falcon family of rockets continue to dominate the US launch market, most recently securing their third consecutive NASA launch contract this year.

On September 25th, NASA announced that it had awarded SpaceX a contract to launch its Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) mission and several rideshare payloads. For $109.4 million, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch the spacecraft (of unknown mass) to Earth’s L1 Lagrange point from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) no earlier than (NET) October 2024.

An artist’s conception of the IMAP spacecraft. (NASA)

IMAP is the third consecutive launch contract NASA has awarded to SpaceX. In early February 2020, the space agency awarded SpaceX an $80.4m contract to launch the PACE (Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem) mission on Falcon 9 in December 2022. In late February, the space agency again chose SpaceX, signing a $117m contract to launch the Psyche spacecraft on a Falcon Heavy rocket in July 2022.

NASA’s PACE spacecraft. (NASA)
NASA’s Psyche spacecraft. (NASA)

Altogether, in the last seven months, NASA has awarded SpaceX – and SpaceX alone – three launch contracts worth a total of $307 million. Competitor United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) last NASA launch contract win came in December 2019 when the space agency awarded the company $165.7 million to launch the GOES-T climate satellite in December 2021 on an Atlas V 541 rocket. On average, every single SpaceX contract saves NASA at least $50 million on launch costs alone.

Before SpaceX broke ULA’s monopoly on US launch services, the company actually charged NASA ~$230 million to launch similar GOES-R and GOES-S satellites on Atlas V 541 rockets, implying that the reintroduction of competition can and has cut around 40% off of ULA’s own prices.

Curiously, though, the price of NASA’s IMAP Falcon 9 launch contract is extremely high relative to most other NASA Falcon 9 missions, including PACE. At $109.4 million, IMAP’s lone Falcon 9 contract will cost just $6.6 million – 5.6% – less than Psyche’s Falcon Heavy launch contract.

At the moment, little to nothing is publicly known about the mass of IMAP or its ~4 rideshare passengers. NASA’s own launch calculator suggests that a Falcon 9 with drone ship booster recovery can launch up to ~3400 kg (7500 lb) to the Lagrange 1 point, a sort of gravitational eddy fixed between the Earth and Sun. While it’s possible that SpaceX is simply being savvier and putting a bit less money where its mouth is as far as lowering the cost of access to space goes, IMAP’s contract price strongly implies that the mission will be an expendable one for Falcon 9.

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SpaceX has busy manifest of Dragon missions

Dragon assembly

WASHINGTON — SpaceX is preparing for a busy schedule of Dragon missions carrying cargo and crew to the International Space Station through next year, a manifest that will make at least some use of reused spacecraft.

At a Sept. 29 NASA briefing, Benji Reed, senior director of human spaceflight programs at SpaceX, said that schedule of missions means there will be at least one Dragon spacecraft, and sometimes two, docked to the station continuously through the end of 2021 after the launch of the Crew-1 Crew Dragon mission, currently scheduled for Oct. 31.

“This really is a new era for us as a company at SpaceX, and also for commercial space in general,” he said.

Reed said that the current manifest projects seven Dragon missions will launch in the next 14 months, including three Crew Dragon missions. The Crew-1 mission will be followed next spring by the Crew-2 mission, for which NASA has already assigned astronauts from the U.S., Europe and Japan. A Crew-3 mission would follow late next year, although NASA has not announced plans for it.

There will also be four Dragon cargo missions, starting with the CRS-21 mission scheduled for launch in November. Those missions will use the same spacecraft design as the Crew Dragon missions instead of the original cargo version of Dragon flown on past cargo missions to the station. That will enable the cargo Dragon to directly dock with the station, rather than be grappled by the station’s robotic arm and berthed to the station.

The CRS-21 mission will also mark the first time two Dragon spacecraft are in space at the same time. That mission will remain docked to the station for 35 days before returning to Earth. After that, the Crew-2 astronauts will board the Crew Dragon and relocate it from its original docking port, called Node 2 Forward, to the neighboring Node 2 Zenith port. That would free up the Node 2 Forward port, which offers a more straightforward approach to the station, for an uncrewed Boeing CST-100 Starliner test flight tentatively scheduled for late this year.

Flying seven Dragon missions in 14 months will require some degree of spacecraft reuse, Reed said. “A number of them are reused flights, and a handful of them are new,” he said, but didn’t immediately know how many of the missions will use previously flown spacecraft. NASA and SpaceX previously said they would refurbish the Dragon flown on the Demo-2 test flight this summer for the Crew-2 mission. Both Crew-1 and possibly Crew-3 will use new spacecraft, he said.

“What we’re doing right now is assessing the right way to do all of those in the most efficient manner we can, and make sure we have the right amount of margin in the schedule between refurbishment and the need for flight,” he said.

Dragon refurbishment takes place at a SpaceX facility at Cape Canaveral, Florida, which also processes those spacecraft for launch. “Our goal is to be able to do all of Dragon processing at the Cape,” he said. “They’re able to work multiple Dragons through there at the same time, and do refurbishment.”

NASA is not the only customer for the Crew Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX has announced contracts with Axiom Space for missions to the ISS and with Space Adventures for a free-flyer mission. There has been speculation that an Axiom Space mission, perhaps with actor Tom Cruise among its crew, could launch to the station as soon as October 2021 on a short-duration stay.

Reed didn’t comment on any specific plans for such commercial missions, beyond that they were not included in the manifest of seven NASA missions planned through 2021. “I think that late next year is a good time to start looking towards starting those missions up,” he said.

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SpaceX adds mystery Falcon 9 launch to packed October manifest

SpaceX FCC paperwork has revealed the addition of an unidentified Falcon 9 launch to the company’s packed October manifest, ranging from several Starlink missions to Crew Dragon’s first operational astronaut launch.

Under the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), companies must submit an application for permission to communicate with their rocket for every single launch. While a major annoyance for those companies and an undeniably clunky process, those applications for “special temporary authority” (STAs) to communicate are one of the only ways members of the public can independently monitor and forecast US launch activities. For SpaceX, the company typically applies for multiple STAs for every single launch, including specific applications for booster launches, landings, and preflight ground tests.

The separate STAs can be connected with a “Mission Number” SpaceX associates each one with, while coordinates included to designate the area of landing communications (i.e. the drone ship recovery zone) often reveals a mission’s trajectory. Combined, STAs can often be used to identify the exact mission (i.e. a Starlink launch, Crew Dragon, etc.). STAs for SpaceX’s upcoming Crew Dragon Crew-1 and Cargo Dragon CRS-21 missions, as well as several Starlink launches, have already been identified.

FCC paperwork suggests that the SpaceX has added a mystery rocket launch to its packed October manifest. (SpaceX/Richard Angle)

Thanks to bad weather and a flurry of ULA delays, SpaceX’s October manifest is currently packed with three Starlink missions, a GPS III satellite launch for the US military, and Crew Dragon’s first operational astronaut mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Barring a miracle, ULA’s latest Delta IV Heavy launch delay has pushed SpaceX’s GPS III SV04 mission to October 1st.

GPS III Space Vehicle 04 (SV04) is encapsulated inside Falcon 9’s payload fairing. (SpaceX)

Starlink-12 – SpaceX’s 11th Starlink mission this year and 13th overall – is tentatively set to follow GPS III SV04 at 9:17 am EDT (13:17 UTC) on October 1st. Starlink-13 and Starlink-14 are then scheduled to launch no earlier than mid-to-late-October. Finally, SpaceX and NASA are in the final stages of preparing for Crew Dragon’s Crew-1 mission – the spacecraft’s first operational delivery of astronauts to the ISS – as soon as October 31st (Halloween).

A new Sirius XM radio satellite (SXM-7) could launch on a Falcon 9 rocket on November 6th. On the West Coast, SpaceX’s first California mission since June 2019 could launch on November 10th. SpaceX and NASA are also targeting the launch debut of an upgraded Cargo Dragon 2 resupply spacecraft on a mission known as CRS-21, scheduled to lift off NET November 15th. Last but assuredly not least, Turkey’s Turksat 5A communications satellite could launch as early as November 31st. No Starlink missions are currently scheduled in November but it’s safe to assume that there will be at least one or two. Altogether, SpaceX already has five launches scheduled in October and four set for November. While undeniably prolific, SpaceX has never launched more than three times in one month.

Falcon 9 B1059 completes an RTLS landing at LZ-1, August 30th. (SpaceX)

Now, on top of that swath of firm launches, mysterious “SpaceX Mission 1512” has joined the fray. Based on the FCC STA request, the mission is scheduled to launch no earlier than (NET) October 3rd (with a six-month window) and will include a return-to-launch-site (RTLS) Falcon 9 booster landing. The RTLS landing in particular substantially constrains the mission and means – right off the bat – that it can’t be for Starlink, while also ruling out Cargo Dragon CRS-21 (an RTLS landing STA already exists) and Crew Dragon Crew-1 (drone ship landing). Simply put, an RTLS rules out every other launch on SpaceX’s 2020 manifest beyond a rideshare mission tentatively scheduled in December, and SpaceX almost never files for STAs months in advance.

That leaves some kind of unannounced, mystery mission. Only once in SpaceX’s history has the company conducted an unannounced launch – unsurprisingly for some unknown branch of the US military or espionage apparatus. Known as Zuma and still shrouded in secrecy, it followed an almost identical pattern, revealed only through FCC launch and landing communications requests and rumors in 2017 before a January 2018 launch. Although Northrop Grumman was thrown under the bus for a failed payload adapter that may or may not have doomed the satellite, no federal agency has taken credit for the mission – unspeakably odd as far as spaceflight goes.

At the time, unofficial rumors published on Reddit implied that Zuma would only be the first of many similar missions. The claimed failure of a spring-like deployment mechanism and loss of spacecraft – believed to be worth one or several billion dollars – just hours after launch would have unsurprisingly thrown a wrench into those gears. Now, almost three years later and in the midst of an exceptionally busy period of several important launches, could SpaceX be preparing for Zuma-2?

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NASA and SpaceX wrapping up certification of Crew Dragon

Demo-2 splashdown

WASHINGTON — NASA and SpaceX are finalizing reviews of minor changes to the Crew Dragon spacecraft that they expect will be complete before the first operational mission launches to the International Space Station at the end of October.

During a series of press conferences Sept. 29 about the upcoming Crew-1 mission to the ISS, officials said they were incorporating lessons learned from the Demo-2 flight of the Crew Dragon this summer into the design of the spacecraft.

One issue involves the heat shield on the spacecraft. “We found on a tile a little bit more erosion than we wanted to see,” said Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX. The problem appeared to be with how air flowed around “tension ties,” or bolts that link the capsule to the trunk section of the spacecraft that is jettisoned just before reentry. “We saw some flow phenomenon that we really didn’t expect, and we saw erosion to be deeper than we anticipated.”

He emphasized that erosion was limited to a very small area of the heat shield, and didn’t put the Demo-2 crew in jeopardy. “It’s relatively easy to fix,” he said, by using a more erosion-resistant material for the tiles around the four tension ties. That change was tested in an arcjet chamber at the Ames Research Center last week “and it came out great.”

A second issue was with parachute deployment, which took place within what Koenigsmann called the “allowable box” for reentry but a little lower than expected. SpaceX is changing an instrument that uses barometric pressure to determine altitude to correct the problem.

Those changes have been the major issues before NASA formally certifies the Crew Dragon spacecraft for operational missions. “The big chunk of the certification is in those upgrades,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations. Other focus areas include new capabilities added to the Crew-1 mission, such as being able to dock with two different ports on the station.

Most of the rest of the certification work is completed, she said, including a program-level certification review. “We’re just in the process of finalizing the last few pieces of our documentation needed to close our human rating certification plans,” she said, work she expected to completed in the next week to 10 days. A “final final” certification will take place at the flight readiness review for the Crew-1 mission, about a week before launch.

Another change for the Crew-1 mission will address an issue after splashdown on the Demo-2 mission, when dozens of private boats swarmed around the spacecraft. Koenigsmann said NASA and SpaceX is closely coordinating with the U.S. Coast Guard to maintain a 16-kilometer “keep out zone” around the splashdown site, to be patrolled by additional Coast Guard vessels.

The Crew Dragon mission that will fly the Crew-1 mission features other upgrades, including the ability to support four people and remain in orbit for 210 days. The spacecraft also features an improved backshell that will increase the wind limits for reentry, said Anthony Vareha, the lead NASA flight director for the mission. For Demo-2, he said, there was just one chance in seven of having acceptable winds, but “we got it right on the first try.” For Crew-1, that will improve to one in four.

The day before the briefings, NASA announced it was delaying the Crew-1 launch by eight days to Oct. 31. Part of the reason for the slip was to wrap up that certification work, as well as provide more time between the arrival and departure of Soyuz spacecraft in mid-October and the Crew-1 mission. “It’s a very busy October for us,” Lueders said.

Another factor in the announcement in the delay was to provide more time to track down an air leak on the station. Shortly before the briefings started, NASA announced the rate of the leak had increased, and had been isolated to the Zvezda module in the station. “We think there’s something going on there,” said Kenny Todd, deputy manager of the ISS program at NASA.

That leak does not pose a safety issue for the crew, and Todd said additional air bottles will be flown to the station on a Cygnus cargo spacecraft scheduled for launch Oct. 1. It also should not affect the Crew-1 mission, he added. “We’ll be OK out to the spring of next year” based on the current leak rate, he said. “This is not necessarily a near-term problem, as long as the leak rate stays at where it’s at today.”

The four astronauts who will fly on the Crew-1 mission — NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi — said they were ready for the flight, having finished all their training for the mission except for a few final simulator sessions. The astronauts announced that, following the tradition of the Demo-2 mission, where astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley named their Crew Dragon spacecraft “Endeavour,” they had selected the name “Resilience” for their spacecraft.

“I think all of us can agree that 2020 has certainly been a challenging year,” Hopkins said. “The name ‘Resilience’ is really in honor of the SpaceX and NASA teams and, quite frankly, it’s in honor of our families, our colleagues, our fellow citizens, international partners and leaders, who have all shown that same quality, that same characteristic through these difficult times.”

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SpaceX lends Starlink to Washington emergency services as Elon Musk talks IPO

SpaceX has provided Washington’s Emergency Management department access to Starlink satellite internet service in a bid to support the state’s emergency response to dangerous wildfires.

Though the customer is technically a military department, this is the first public announcement of the internet constellation’s use in a civil service-oriented role. In the case of Malden, WA, a tiny eastern town with roughly 200 residents, a wildfire broke out in the first week of September and all but destroyed every building in a matter of hours. No fatalities have been recorded but the town and all its critical services effectively ceased to exist by the time the first passed through.

Given the sheer scale of fire damage Washington state has suffered this summer, Malden – without power or many other utilities after the fire passed through – is likely being held together with the support of emergency services departments like WA Emergency Management. Now, with SpaceX’s help, that likely includes the ability to provide some limited internet service – perhaps in a communal center or shelter – without spending an unreasonable portion of the precious little resources most emergency response agencies have to work with.

A Starlink user terminal prototype. (SpaceX)

While still firmly in the development and prototype phase, SpaceX has begun to gradually expand the scope of its beta testing as the Starlink constellation expands, building off of an already strong relationship with the US military. That helps explain why, of so many possible civil recipients, WA Emergency Management – a military department – has received access to Starlink internet services first.

As SpaceX has made sure to reiterate during its many Starlink launch webcasts, the constellation’s main target demographics are those in regions that either completely or practically lack access to reliable internet. With a low Earth orbit (LEO) constellation like Starlink, SpaceX could feasibly deliver reliable, uninterrupted internet almost anywhere on Earth, so long as a prospective user has access to enough power to run their user terminal (antenna/router). According to SpaceX’s FCC application for said terminal, A/C power input requirements should never climb above 2.5 amps from a normal 100-240v outlet.

Ultimately, the second planned phase of Starlink will see the constellation grow to a point that SpaceX can seriously begin competing with ground-based ISPs – even in densely-populated areas. For now, though, the company has made it clear that the first phase – at least several thousand satellites -will primarily focus on connecting the unconnected and substantially upgrading the capabilities of emergency responders around the world.

Twelves Starlink launches; sixteen months; >700 satellites. (SpaceX & Richard Angle)

Confirming President/COO Gwynne Shotwell’s February 2020 comments on a possible Starlink IPO, CEO Elon Musk reiterated that SpaceX may eventually spin off Starlink and make the company public, “but only several years in the future.” This is far from surprising, as Musk has consistently expressed disdain for the challenge of running Tesla as a public company, going so far as getting himself in hot legal water in an ill-fated attempt to take the company private in 2018.

Going public is possibly the single worst thing SpaceX or any SpaceX spin-off could do, given that shareholders generally have a single goal in mind: reliable profit and reliable growth. That attitude is generally the death knell for high-uncertainty R&D programs pursuing the first low Earth orbit Internet satellite constellation, reusable orbital-class rockets, 100-person Starships, or bases on the Moon and Mars. As such, Musk notes that SpaceX will consider taking Starlink public – but if and only if Starlink reaches a point where “revenue growth is smooth & predictable.” Shotwell and Musk, in other words, are on the same page.

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SpaceX Starlink launch suffers last-second scrub, ULA up next

SpaceX’s eleventh Starlink launch of the year was scrubbed ~30 seconds before liftoff by bad weather, likely delaying the mission a few days and leaving ULA’s latest Delta IV Heavy launch attempt next in line.

Scheduled to lift off at 10:22 am EDT on Monday, September 28th, SpaceX’s 12th operational Starlink launch (V1 L12) nearly made it to liftoff before the company called the mission off, prioritizing mission success above all else. Given that SpaceX’s Starlink program puts the company in the unique position of being its own launch customer, the decision to let a relatively mild weather violation delay a Starlink mission by at least a few days is unintuitively encouraging.

It’s no secret that SpaceX has become the most successful private launch company in history and a commercial force to be reckoned with, handily overtaking United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Arianespace to acquire a vast majority of the commercial launch market share. Falcon 9 is on track to become the fastest commercial rocket in history to cross the 100-launch milestone and SpaceX is already well on its way to regularly out-launching entire countries with 20+ missions per year. The single biggest risk facing the company is arguably complacency and an infamous tendency known as “launch fever.”

The first twice-flown Falcon 9 payload fairing half is pictured here shortly before SpaceX scrubbed Starlink-12. (SpaceX)

At the cutting edge of spaceflight, constant, exhaustive vigilance is ultimately the only thing standing between a reliable rocket or spacecraft and catastrophic failure. Perhaps the single biggest threat to that vigilance is the somewhat understandable desire to avoid launch delays – a fact of life for rocketry that nevertheless costs time, money, and (to some) reputation. The term “launch” or “go fever” was originally colloquialized to describe the irresponsible managerial pressure to launch largely responsible for both of NASA’s catastrophic Space Shuttle failures.

Some (if not most) parts of SpaceX almost assuredly would rather avoid launch delays. The fact that the company continues to accept Starlink launch delays and respect Falcon 9’s limits strongly implies that SpaceX has found ways to prevent launch fever while still pushing the envelope of launch cadence and rocket reuse. Starlink-12, for example, was originally meant to launch on September 17th but was delayed ~10 days by strong ocean currents before being scrubbed seconds before launch on September 28th. Combined with the fact that SpaceX is technically free to accept more risk on its own Starlink launches, compounded delays will inevitably test the limits of any organization’s resolve.

Falcon 9 fogs up the camera moments before a scrubbed launch attempt. (SpaceX)

While the argument that SpaceX is technically the only direct stakeholder in Starlink missions is a bad-faith argument that could easily be made to push for increased risk tolerance, it’s only true in a vacuum. A Falcon 9 failure during a Starlink launch would still have major consequences for all of SpaceX’s customers, particularly delaying critical NASA astronaut and US military launches until a lengthy accident investigation is completed. SpaceX executives and managers involved in launch go/no-go decisions clearly understand this and act accordingly.

Starlink-12 will likely be recycled for another launch attempt sometime after ULA’s next Delta IV Heavy launch attempt and probably after SpaceX’s own GPS III SV04 mission for the US military, scheduled no earlier than (NET) 12:02 am EDT (04:02 UTC) and 9:55 pm EDT (01:55 UTC), September 29th, respectively. Catch ULA’s latest NROL-44 launch attempt at the company’s official webcast below.

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SpaceX wins launch contract for NASA space science mission

IMAP

WASHINGTON — NASA has selected SpaceX to launch a space science mission and several secondary payloads, the latest in a series of wins by SpaceX for NASA science missions.

NASA announced Sept. 28 it awarded a contract to SpaceX for the launch of its Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) spacecraft in 2024 from Cape Canaveral on a Falcon 9. The total value of the contract, covering launch and other “mission related costs,” is $109.4 million.

IMAP is a mission NASA selected for development in 2018 as part of its Solar Terrestrial Probes program. It will operate at the L-1 Lagrange point, 1.5 million kilometers from the Earth in the direction of the sun, to the study the boundary of the sun’s heliosphere with interstellar space, and to measure the generation of cosmic rays.

The launch will also carry several secondary payloads as part of a NASA initiative to take advantage of excess capacity on science missions. Those payloads include NASA’s Lunar Trailblazer smallsat, which will orbit the moon to look for water ice, and NOAA’s Space Weather Follow-On L-1 mission, a space weather monitoring mission that, like IMAP, will operate at the L-1 point. Two additional NASA heliophysics “missions of opportunity,” yet to be selected, will also be on the launch.

The contract is the latest in a string of victories for SpaceX in competitions to launch NASA science satellites. Those awards, though, have had a wide range of contract values, even for the same class of launch vehicle.

SpaceX won a contract in April 2019 for the launch of NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission in 2021 worth $69 million. Three months later, the company won a contract for the launch of the Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer smallsat, valued at $50.3 million. In February, it won a contract for the launch of the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem spacecraft worth $80.4 million.

All three of those launches, like the IMAP mission, will use Falcon 9 rockets. One reason the IMAP mission may be more expensive than the others is the higher complexity of the mission, which includes several secondary payloads going to both the L-1 point and the moon.

The value of the IMAP contract only slightly less than SpaceX’s first Falcon Heavy contract with NASA, for the Psyche asteroid mission, awarded in February. That contract is worth $117 million.

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SpaceX go for Starlink launch, landing as ULA rocket delays persist

SpaceX is on track for Falcon 9’s latest Starlink launch and landing later today as delays continue to hamper a United Launch Alliance (ULA) rocket meant to lift off more than a month ago.

In fact, an almost identical scenario played out a month ago as SpaceX and ULA coincidentally aligned to attempt two launches less than a day apart. The pad hardware supporting ULA’s Delta IV Heavy NROL-44 mission suffered several delays on August 26th and 27th, followed by a dramatic post-ignition launch abort on August 29th. Throughout, SpaceX effectively had to sit on its hands and wait for permission to launch Falcon 9’s SAOCOM 1B mission. Historically, it’s been safe to assume that a ULA mission – particularly one like NROL-44 – would unilaterally take precedence over a SpaceX launch, forcing the company to wait indefinitely until the range was clear.

Instead, in a major twist, SpaceX received permission to launch – and ultimately did launch – SAOCOM 1B on August 30th with ULA’s Delta IV Heavy and its multibillion-dollar NROL-44 payload still on the launch pad. In essence, one or several stakeholders in the military mission have become confident enough in the reliability of SpaceX’s rockets to no longer perceive a nearby Falcon launch as a major risk. Now, just a month after the development, SpaceX appears to be on track to repeat the feat.

Falcon 9 booster B1058 will support Starlink-12 on its third flight. (Richard Angle)

Three days after SAOCOM 1B lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) Launch Complex 40 (LC-40), a separate Falcon 9 rocket launched SpaceX’s 12th Starlink mission (Starlink-11) from Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Launch Complex 39A (Pad 39A). Starlink-12 is also scheduled to launch no earlier than (NET) 10:22 am EDT (14:22 UTC), September 28th from Pad 39A, a bit less than six miles (9.5 km) north of the ULA rocket and NROL-44 satellite at LC-37.

SAOCOM 1B was such a surprise because the unique southerly trajectory saw Falcon 9 fly almost directly above LC-37, meaning that an in-flight failure could have very likely showered ULA’s pad, rocket, and payload with debris. LC-40, however, is just a little over two miles (3.5 km) north of LC-37. In other words, a Starlink launch heading northeast from Pad 39A is clearly of little concern to ULA or the NROL-44 launch customer, particularly after SAOCOM 1B was allowed to launch under far riskier conditions.

Falcon 9 B1060 lifts off for the first time with the US military’s GPS III SV03 satellite. (Richard Angle)

Instead, the real test of the SAOCOM 1B precedent will come when SpaceX prepares for the mission scheduled after Starlink-12 – the company’s third launch of an upgraded GPS III satellite (SV04) for the US military. As of now, ULA’s next NROL-44 launch attempt is tentatively scheduled around midnight (~04:00 UTC) on September 29th. Shortly thereafter, Falcon 9 is scheduled to launch GPS III SV04 (from LC-40) as early as 9:55 pm EDT (01:55 UTC) that same day.

Given the sheer number of difficulties ULA has had with LC-37 pad systems on this launch attempt, it’s reasonable to assume that NROL-44 will slip beyond September 29th. If that happens, stakeholders will once again have to decide if SpaceX can launch two miles to the north or has to wait for ULA. Either way, tune in tomorrow morning to catch SpaceX’s Starlink-12 launch webcast. Weather at Kennedy Space Center is currently 60% go for launch.

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SpaceX wins US military approval to launch on reused Falcon boosters

A United States military contract with SpaceX has been modified to allow future launches aboard reused Falcon 9 boosters, saving the US tens of millions of dollars.

The series of Lockheed Martin built GPS III satellites operated by the U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center has been traditionally launched on new expendable boosters. The first two GPS III spacecraft launched on an expendable Falcon 9 and a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket.

The expendable SpaceX Falcon 9 B1054 booster during its first and only mission lifts the United States Air Force GPS III SV01 satellite to orbit on December 23, 2018. (SpaceX)

An earlier contract modification was made to allow Falcon 9 boosters launching GPS III missions to attempt landings. In June, the third GPS III vehicle launched on a Falcon 9 from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It was the first time a booster carrying a GPS III vehicle was recovered.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 booster B1060 is pictured during return to Port Canaveral after having been successfully recoverd in June 2020. (Richard Angle)

“I am proud of our partnership with SpaceX that allowed us to successfully negotiate contract modifications for the upcoming GPS III missions that will save taxpayers $52.7 million while maintaining our unprecedented record of success,” Dr. Walt Lauderdale, Space and Missile Systems Center Falcon Systems and Operations Division chief said in a statement provided by The U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center.

SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell commented that, “We appreciate the effort that the U.S. Space Force invested into the evaluation and are pleased that they see the benefits of the technology. Our extensive experience with reuse has allowed SpaceX to continually upgrade the fleet and save significant precious tax dollars on these launches.”

The new modification to the GPS III launch services contract permits the Falcon 9 boosters to not only be recovered but to be launched on previously flown boosters. This amendment, however, will only take effect for the future launches of the GPS III SV05 & SV06 satellites.

The payload fairing with GPS III SV03 encapsulated inside is mated with the SpaceX Falcon 9 in June 2020. (SpaceX)

The plan to launch the series of GPS III satellites on reused Falcon 9s was originally intended to begin during Phase 2 of the launch services contract in 2021. The existing contract with the U.S. Space Force will conclude with the launch of the GPS III SV06 satellite in 2021. The National Security Space Launch program Phase 2 contracts for the remaining four GPS III satellites have not yet been awarded and will be bid on by both SpaceX and ULA.

The upcoming launch of the GPS III SV04 satellite currently slated to occur on Tuesday, September 29 from SLC-40 will utilize a brand new Falcon 9 booster (B1062). The fresh Falcon 9 performed a healthy static fire test of its nine Merlin 1D engines early on the morning of Friday, September 25. Later that evening the encapsulated payload was captured by Twitter user GoalieBear88 during its transfer from a nearby processing facility to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to be mated with the Falcon 9 booster.

Should all proceed nominally between now and the intended launch date the GPS III SV04 mission is slated to launch during a window extending from 9:55-10:10 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, September 29 (0155-0210 UTC Sept. 30). The 45th Weather Squadron predicts the weather to be mostly favorable with a 70% chance of acceptable conditions at the time of launch. Should a 24 hour recycle be needed the weather improves slightly to 80%.

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SpaceX’s Starship Moon lander passes NASA review alongside Blue Origin, Dynetics

A variant of SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft optimized to land NASA astronauts on the Moon has passed the space agency’s first review alongside competing teams lead by Blue Origin and Dynetics.

Aside from reiterating the fact that NASA is drawing heavily from its experience with the Commercial Crew Program (CCP), the completion of “certification baseline reviews” for Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX’s proposed lunar landers is a significant step forward for the Human Landing System (HLS) and Artemis programs. According to NASA’s official HLS “Broad Agency Announcement” or BAA, providers must submit a vast amount of paperwork and data to pass the certification baseline review (CBR).

More of a than an assignment than an actual review, NASA’s acceptance criteria for CBR documentation is about as general as the space agency gets, requiring providers to demonstrate at least a basic level of maturity and expertise. Like the name suggests, it sets a baseline from which NASA and SpaceX, Dynetics, and Blue Origin’s National Team will hone in on challenges and concerns specific to each system. SpaceX’s proposal is almost certainly unique, however, given that the company is the only one anywhere close to performing actual flight tests of a (relatively) similar system.

Pictured on the left, SpaceX’s lunar Starship is a customized version of the baseline ship meant to land NASA astronauts on the Moon. (SpaceX)

After much fanfare, NASA finally revealed its first real Human Landing System contracts on April 30th, 2020, awarding funds to Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX to develop three extremely dissimilar Moon landers. Designed to ferry NASA astronauts from a deserted lunar orbit (near-rectilinear halo orbit, NRHO). NASA initially refused to delineate the distribution of the $967 million contract.

A list of the HLS Certification Baseline Review (CBR) “acceptance criteria and products”. (NASA)

Several news outlets later reported that Blue Origin’s “National Team” (including Draper, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman) received $567 million to develop a complex three-stage system, using Blue Origin’s existing Blue Moon lander work for the final descent stage and lander. Dynetics won $253 million to build a slightly more familiar single-stage lander and SpaceX received $135 million for a single-stage Starship-derived vehicle.

The main goal of NASA’s initial funding is to extensively characterize and understand the capabilities and characteristics of each proposal and the likelihood that each vehicle will actually be ready to land humans on the Moon by the end of 2024. The next major HLS milestone will be what the space agency calls a “continuation review,” in which NASA will likely downselect to one of the three landers above. Administrator Jim Bridenstine says that NASA may decide to proceed with more than one provider but the strong implication is that only one will exit the ~December 2020 continuation review with future funding.

(SpaceX)
Unlike Blue Origin and Dynetics, SpaceX has already flight-tested multiple full-scale Starship prototypes. (SpaceX)

For SpaceX, it appears that the company will almost certainly field an orbit-capable Starship and Super Heavy booster with or without external help. At this point in the program, it would take a major upset for SpaceX not to be ready to start orbital Starship launch attempts in 2021. To an extent, SpaceX has proven through Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Crew Dragon that it’s capable of developing reliable, reusable, industry-leading rockets and spacecraft several times more cheaply than its closest competitors.

To build a Starship safe and reliable enough that SpaceX can convince NASA to land astronauts on the Moon with it, the company will effectively have to prove that it can cut the cost of rocket production by another factor of five or ten. Time will tell where NASA’s HLS cards fall just a few months from now.

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