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SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s hat is safe after ULA Vulcan rocket launch slips to 2023

In the latest unfortunate development for SpaceX competitor United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket, it looks like CEO Elon Musk may have been right all along when he forecast major delays more than three years ago.

In February 2018, even before SpaceX had flown Falcon Heavy for the first time, detractors with axes to grind were already busy attempting to downplay the rocket’s capabilities. On February 6th, Falcon Heavy lifted off for the first time, launching a several-ton Tesla Roadster car into interplanetary space and marking the first debut of a super heavy-lift rocket since the 1980s. That successful launch also meant that ULA’s last bastion of competitive advantage – the Delta IV Heavy rocket, fittingly by way of monopoly – was no longer alone.

Indeed, mere months after its near-flawless debut, Falcon Heavy had already secured its first operational US military launch contract. Delta IV Heavy, on the other hand, had already been preparing for retirement as part of ULA’s plan to replace two complex rockets (Delta and Atlas) with Vulcan.

Musk mercilessly took to task ULA’s heavy-lift rocket when commenters brought it up, noting that Falcon Heavy is largely comparable in a partially-reusable configuration but completely outclasses Delta IV Heavy – while still being dramatically cheaper – if all boosters are expended. The SpaceX CEO estimated that Delta IV Heavy launches would cost ULA significantly more than $400M after the company had effectively announced the end of Delta IV Medium production, though ULA CEO Tory Bruno still claimed a launch price of ~$350M.

In response to a reply noting that ULA’s plan was to replace Atlas V and Delta IV with Vulcan Centaur for launches “after 2020,” Musk pulled no punches, stating that he would “seriously eat [his] hat with a side of mustard if [Vulcan] flies a national security spacecraft before 2023.” At the time, ULA’s CEO did not exactly seem to share Musk’s shocking appraisal of the situation, which was out of left field even for major SpaceX proponents.

At the time, ULA’s party line touted Vulcan Centaur lifting off for the first time in late 2019 – the very next year. Ironically, weeks after Musk threw down his hat-eating gauntlet, ULA announced that Vulcan’s first launch had slipped to “mid-2020” – with a second flight later the same year – to give the company time to move straight to a larger upper stage originally meant to debut later on. Six months later, ULA announced yet another delay for Vulcan, this time pushing the rocket’s launch debut from mid-2020 to no earlier than (NET) April 2021.

Three years later, April 2021 has come and gone and ULA’s latest public Vulcan launch target is now “late 2021,” though that is all but guaranteed to slip into early 2022. In the latest (not-so-) shocking development for ULA’s next-generation rocket, the company has now requested and received permission from the US military to swap out Vulcan for an Atlas V rocket on what would have been the vehicle’s first military launch.

Exercising a contract loophole that had to have been explicitly designed to give ULA – and ULA alone – the option to fall back on its Atlas V or Delta IV rockets if Vulcan were to experience major delays, Atlas V will now take over the ULA’s USSF-51 mission. As a result, Vulcan Centaur’s first dedicated ‘national security’ launch is now officially scheduled no earlier than 2023, saving Elon Musk from having to eat his hat.

As of May 2021, ULA has now replaced one Vulcan launch with an Atlas V and inexplicably closed nine Atlas V launch contracts with Starlink competitor Amazon, bringing into question whether the company is ever actually going to simplify its rocket production lines. Given that ULA no longer appears to be planning on reusing parts of Vulcan, the only possible way Vulcan will end up more affordable than the rockets its replacing is if it quickly becomes the only rocket ULA produces, which was originally the plan. With ULA now apparently going out of its way to sell Atlas V commercially instead of Vulcan Centaur, it’s difficult to argue that the company has any interest at all in lowering the cost of access to space or offering SpaceX serious competition outside of lobbying and greasing the hinges of revolving doors.

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SpaceX Falcon 9 crushes next-gen ULA Vulcan rocket on cost in first competition

The United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket appears to have made it through what could be described as its first real competition with SpaceX and its Falcon 9 workhorse.

The US Space Force (or Air Force) awarded both rockets two launch contracts each on March 9th, marking the second award under “Phase 2” of a new National Security Space Launch (NSSL; formerly Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle or EELV) agreement. The culmination of a multi-year competition, NSSL Phase 2 calcified in late 2020 when the US military ultimately chose ULA and SpaceX as its primary launch providers for the better part of the next decade.

The final Phase 2 agreement followed Phase 1, in which the USAF committed up to $2.3 billion to assist Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman, and ULA in their efforts to develop future military launch capabilities. SpaceX submitted a proposal but didn’t win funds. Even though the ULA-SpaceX dichotomy was already a more or less fixed outcome before the competition even began, the US military still managed to dole out almost $800 million to Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman before announcing that neither provider had been selected for Phase 2.

Notably, as part of Phase 1, ULA is on track to receive nearly $1 billion in USSF/USAF aid to develop its next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket and ensure that it meets all of the military’s exacting, unique requirements. SpaceX, on the other hand, received a sum total of $0 from that opaque slush fund to meet the exact same requirements as ULA.

For Phase 2, the US military arbitrarily split the roughly two-dozen launch contracts up for grabs into a 60/40 pile. Even more bizarrely, the USAF did everything in its power to prevent two of the three rockets it had just spent more than $1.7 billion to help develop from receiving any of those two or three-dozen available launch contracts – all but literally setting $800M of that investment on fire. Short of comical levels of blind ineptitude, verging on criminal negligence, the only possible explanation for the US military’s behavior with NSSL Phase 1 and Phase 2 is an all-holds-barred effort to guarantee that ULA and its Vulcan Centaur rocket would have zero real competition.

The arbitrary 60:40 split of the final Phase 2 contract ‘lot’ further supports that argument. A government agency objectively interested in securing the best possible value and redundancy for its taxpayer-provided money would logically exploit a $1.7B investment as much as possible instead of throwing two-thirds of its ultimate value in the trash. On its own, a block-buy scenario – even with a leading goal of selecting two providers – is fundamentally inferior to an open competition for each of the dozens of launch contracts at hand.

Further, selecting the block-buy option and failing to split those contracts 50:50 makes it even clearer that the USAF’s only steadfast NSSL Phase 2 goal was to guarantee ULA enough Vulcan launch contracts for the company to be comfortable and (most likely) not lose money on a rocket that has yet to demonstrate an ability to compete on the commercial launch market.

ULA delivered its first Vulcan booster prototype in February 2021, at least 12-18 months behind schedule. The rocket is unlikely to fly before Q1 2022. (ULA)

Amazingly, despite multiple handicaps in the form of a 60:40 contract split and what amounts to a $1B subsidy that explicitly disadvantages its only competitor, ULA’s Vulcan rocket still appears to be ~40% more expensive than SpaceX’s Falcon 9. In the latest round of NSSL Phase 2 contracts, seemingly the first in which ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket was selected, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 received two East Coast launch contracts worth slightly less than $160M, averaging out to less than $80M each.

Outfitted with four of a possible zero, two, four, or six strap-on solid rocket boosters (SRBs), Vulcan Centaur received two launch contracts for $224M – an average of $112M each. Assuming ULA wins exactly 60% (~15) of the Phase 2 launch contracts up for grabs and receives no more than $1 billion in USAF development funding through NSSL Phase 1, some $67 million will have to be added to the cost of each announced Vulcan launch contract to get a truly accurate picture. In the case of the rocket’s first two contracts, the real average cost of each Vulcan Centaur launch could thus be closer to $179M ($112M+$67M).

Vulcan Centaur Heavy is imagined launching with six SRBs. (ULA)

According to ULA CEO Tory Bruno, both Vulcan missions are to “high-energy orbits,” whereas a USAF official told Spaceflight Now that SpaceX’s two Falcon 9 contracts were to “lower-energy orbits.” In Vulcan’s defense, if Bruno’s “high-energy orbit” comment means a circular geostationary orbit (GEO) or a very heavy payload to an elliptical geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), it’s possible that SpaceX would have had to use Falcon Heavy to complete the same contracts. Against Falcon Heavy’s established institutional pricing and excluding ULA’s $1B Phase 1 subsidy, Vulcan Centaur is reasonably competitive.

Ultimately, even with several significant cards stacked against it, SpaceX appears likely to continue crushing entrenched competitors like ULA and Arianespace on cost while still offering performance and results equivalent to or better than even than their “next-generation” rockets.

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Space Force awards ULA, SpaceX contracts for four national security missions

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force awarded United Launch Alliance and SpaceX contracts for four National Security Space Launch Phase 2 missions scheduled for 2023, the Pentagon announced March 9.

ULA received $224. 2 million for two missions named USSF-112 and USSF-87.  SpaceX got $159.7 million for USSF-36 and NROL-69.

ULA and SpaceX were selected in August as the two launch providers for Phase 2 of the National Security Space Launch program. ULA won 60% and SpaceX 40% of the estimated 30 to 35 launches projected between 2022 and 2027. The contracts are fixed-price and awarded on a yearly basis based on demand. NSSL launches include Defense Department and National Reconnaissance Office missions.

The Space Force in August awarded the first three missions of Phase 2 scheduled to launch in 2022.

ULA got $337 million to launch two missions and SpaceX received $316 million contract for one mission. SpaceX explained the large price tag included expenses for infrastructure and development of technologies required for national security launches. 

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SpaceX to transition to fully reusable fleet for national security launches

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force expects to clear SpaceX to use previously flown boosters for all national security missions. So far the Space Force only has agreed to allow reused boosters in two GPS launches scheduled in 2021 but the plan is to make the entire fleet reusable by 2022. 

“Over the next 18 months we’ll complete the transition to a fully reusable SpaceX fleet for our national security missions,” Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of the Space and Missile Systems Center’s Launch Enterprise, said Nov. 19.

The Falcon 9 rockets that launched two military GPS satellites June 30 and Nov. 5 both had brand-new boosters which the company recovered after launch. After renegotiating its contract with the Space Force, SpaceX will use the recovered boosters from the June and November launches to fly two more GPS satellites in 2021.

Speaking on Thursday at an Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute online forum, Bongiovi said the renegotiated deals saved the government $65 million over the four GPS launches in 2020 and 2021.

The Space Force transition to a reusable fleet is significant because up until now SpaceX was required to fly brand-new boosters for national security missions. The company routinely recovers and reuses rocket hardware in its commercial and NASA launches, but the Space Force needed time to figure out a process to certify previously flown boosters. 

Bongiovi said the Space Force Launch Enterprise lays stringent “mission assurance” requirements on launch providers to minimize the risk of losing expensive payloads in failed launches. He said the SpaceX Falcon fleet has improved its processes and increased its reliability. 

United Launch Alliance and SpaceX were selected Aug. 7 as the Space Force’s primary launch providers from 2022 to 2027. 

Besides the transition to a reusable SpaceX fleet, another key goal for the Launch Enterprise, said Bongiovi, is to get ULA’s new vehicle, the Vulcan Centaur, certified for its first national security mission in 2022. 

’Unfortunate’ Delta 4 delays

Bongiovi said he remains concerned about the setbacks suffered by ULA’s Delta 4 Heavy rocket in attempting to launch the NROL-44 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office.

“I think this is an unfortunate delay,” he said.

The vehicle carrying a classified spy satellite has been sitting on the ground at Cape Canaveral, Florida, since the first launch attempt Aug. 29 ended with a hot-fire abort. 

“We never like to have a launch vehicle and a satellite sitting so long,” Bongiovi said. “But we need to make sure we launch when we’re ready,” he said. The priority is to “make sure this launch is successful.”

After the Aug. 29 abort there were other attempts that also ended in scrubs due to problems with the ground equipment and bad weather. 

ULA said it continues to test the hardware and is taking a broad look at the Delta 4 ground equipment both at Cape Canaveral and at Vandenberg Air Force, California.

The company has not yet announced a new target launch date for NROL-44.

ULA is under contract to fly NROL-44 and four more Delta 4 Heavy missions for the NRO over the next four years before the vehicle is retired. 

“We’ve always had fly-out concerns on the Delta 4 Heavy,” said Bongiovi. However, he said, the risk of moving sensitive NRO payloads to another launch vehicle is “much higher than the risk of flying out Delta 4 Heavy. I still think that’s true.”

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SpaceX Crew-1 launch set for Sunday, ULA successfully launches spy satellite

On Friday evening, Nov. 13, NASA and SpaceX announced that the first operational Commercial Crew Program mission of the Crew Dragon would be delayed 24 hours to Sunday, Nov. 15, at 7:27 pm EST (0027 GMT 11/16). During a Crew-1 pre-launch news conference, SpaceX’s senior director of the Human Spaceflight Programs, Benji Reed, stated that the delay was driven by impacts on recovery efforts caused by tropical storm Eta, which had plagued Florida for days.

Just prior to the news conference, United Launch Alliance(ULA) successfully launched its Atlas V rocket after suffering delays of its own earlier in the week. The NROL-101 mission carried a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office of the U.S. government and successfully launched from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 5:32 pm EST.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 531 rockets liftsoff from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station just after sunset at 5:32pm EST. (Richard Angle)

Florida weather caused multiple launch delays

Weather, especially that caused by tropical storm Eta, has caused a domino effect of delays for SpaceX and ULA over the last few weeks. The ULA Atlas V 531 rocket stacked with the secretive NROL-101 payload, initially set to liftoff on Nov. 3, was first delayed by damage sustained to environmental control system hardware of the upper stage.

According to company CEO, Tory Bruno, as the rocket was transported from ULA’s vertical integration facility (VIF) to the launchpad of SLC-41, very high winds caused damage to a duct that controlled the flow rate of an upper payload environmental control system. As a result, the rocket was returned to the VIF to have the duct replaced. A launch attempt scheduled for the following day on Wednesday, Nov. 4, was called off due to an unrelated problem with ground support equipment.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 531 rocket on the SLC-41 launchpad ahead of a launch attempt of the NROL-101 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office. (Richard Angle)

The NROL-101 mission was then set to launch on Sunday, Nov. 8, but that attempt was eventually called off due to the impending weather that would be brought across the Florida peninsula by then hurricane Eta. On Friday, Nov. 6, the Atlas V 531 rocket and payload for the National Reconnaissance Office was once again returned to the VIF for protection from the storm.

A final launch attempt was identified for Friday, Nov. 13, just 22 hours before the scheduled launch of the SpaceX, NASA Crew-1 mission from nearby Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. Fortunately, the weather held out long enough for the ULA Atlas V 531 rocket to liftoff. Following liftoff and successful payload deployment the mission was later declared a full success by ULA.

The launch of the ULA Atlas V 531 rocket carrying a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office on November 13, 2020. (Richard Angle.)

Florida weather also caused offshore recovery delays, impacting crewed launch

Similarly, the SpaceX and NASA Crew-1 mission has also suffered setbacks due to inclement weather, although not at the launch site. Following the successful launch and landing of the B1062 Falcon 9 of the recent GPSII-SV04 mission on Thursday, Nov. 5, SpaceX recovery teams battled unsettled seas to return the booster and the recovery droneship, Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY), safely back to Port Canaveral.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 and the Crew Dragon Resilience on the launchpad of LC-39A ahead of an launch attempt scheduled for Sunday, November 15 at 7:27pm EST. (Richard Angle)

After securing B1062 safely aboard OCISLY, the SpaceX recovery vessel GO Quest took refuge at the Port of Morehead City in North Carolina. The recovery crew would wait there to assist with the recovery of the B1061 Falcon 9 of the Crew-1 mission, rather than return to Port Canaveral in Florida. The droneship Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) was intended to meet the crew of GO Quest at the Crew-1 booster recovery zone prior to the end of the week.

Due to high winds and rough seas churned up by tropical storm Eta, the OCISLY droneship took an exceptionally tedious 7-day journey hugging the eastern coast of the United States to return to Port Canaveral. The delay caused the crew transfer process from OCISLY to JRTI to be delayed which in turn hindered the departure of the JRTI droneship.

As tropical storm Eta moved out and away from Florida the waters of the Atlantic remained too rough for the JRTI droneship to make up for the lost time. Following the conclusion of SpaceX’s Crew-1 preflight launch readiness review on Friday, Nov. 13, it was announced that the delay in getting the recovery droneship to the B1061 landing zone would delay the Crew-1 launch attempt by 24 hours.

Recovering the Falcon 9 booster, of any mission, is a secondary mission objective. However, the recovery of the Crew-1, B1061 Falcon 9 is important to both NASA and SpaceX – enough so to delay a launch attempt. NASA and SpaceX have already designated this booster to be reused on the next Crew Dragon mission, Crew-2, targeted for no earlier than March 30, 2021. In order to reuse a booster to save on launch costs, it must first be successfully recovered.

The SpaceX Crew-1 Crew Dragon Resilience sits atop the B1061 Falcon 9 booster awaiting launch on Sunday, November 15, 2020. (Richard Angle)

If all goes to plan, three NASA astronauts and one astronaut from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency will climb aboard the Crew Dragon Resilience on Sunday, Nov. 15, and blast off to the International Space Station precisely at 7:27 pm EST (0027 11/16) from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center.

NASA and SpaceX will provide a hosted live broadcast of all Crew-1 events beginning at 3:15 pm EST on Sunday, Nov. 15, on NASA TV and on the SpaceX website.

Check out Teslarati’s newsletters for prompt updates, on-the-ground perspectives, and unique glimpses of SpaceX’s rocket launch and recovery processes.

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Large launch companies cast doubt on viability of small launch vehicle market

Rocket Lab Flight 14 launch

WASHINGTON — Executives of major launch companies said they doubted there was sufficient demand for more than a few small launch vehicle developers, citing their own efforts to provide rideshare launch services for smallsats.

During a panel discussion at Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week Virtual Edition conference Nov. 9, Tory Bruno, chief executive and president of United Launch Alliance, said a year ago he was tracking more than 120 ventures in the small launch vehicle or “microlauncher” market. There is now a “significantly smaller” number of such companies, he said, because of fundraising challenges linked to the pandemic.

“I don’t expect that market to recover because that market would have been grossly — like order of magnitude — oversupplied had all of those startups succeeded,” he said. “There’s really only room, in our judgment, for maybe two or three of these.”

How many companies are actively pursuing small launch vehicles can be difficult to determine, and even companies that go out of business can come back, as was the case with Vector, which recently resumed operations under new ownership after filing for bankruptcy last year. However, other panelists agreed that there is demand for only a few small launch vehicle companies, at most.

“The market needs to evolve,” said Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX. “It’s a tough business.” Shotwell has previously noted that SpaceX’s original small launch vehicle, Falcon 1, was retired because of a lack of demand.

“I don’t think there’s room for dozens of these,” she said, concluding that there is only demand currently for two or three companies.

At least one small launch vehicle company, Rocket Lab, does appear to be successful, having performed 15 launches of its Electron rocket to date with its next scheduled for later this month. But Stéphane Israël, chairman and chief executive of Arianespace, argued that the company relied heavily on business from U.S. government agencies.

“The U.S., in its strategy for autonomous access to space, also wants to have quick and responsive access to space, and are ready to pay much more,” he said. “If Electron was only relying on the commercial market, I think they would have a problem with their business case.”

“For these microlaunchers, it’s more of addressing a government need for immediate access to space,” said Tiphaine Louradour, president of the International Launch Services, which markets the Russian Angara, Proton and Soyuz rockets.

Panelists, all representing companies that offer large launch vehicles, argued their vehicles were more cost effective, both for deployment of constellations of smallsats as well as launching smallsats as secondary rideshare payloads.

“We’re responding to customer demand with New Glenn, and what we see is customers asking to take advantage of our seven-meter fairing and heavy-lift capability so we can launch 30, 40, 50, 60 satellites per mission to get them into orbit quickly,” said Clay Mowry, vice president at Blue Origin.

Those companies expect to see smallsat rideshare missions, either managed by themselves or through third-party brokers, to continue to be part of their overall launch business. “It’s here to stay,” Bruno said, noting it factored into the design of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket. “Will there be only single launches or will there be a rideshare market? Our answer was yes, so we designed the rocket to be flexible enough to handle all of that.”

“We are now having discussions with matchmakers, matching the small satellites into one big payload,” said Ko Ogasawara, vice president and senior chief engineer at the Space Systems Division of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which markets the H-2 and upcoming H3 rockets. The company is working on smallsat and cubesat dispensers for such missions on the H3.

SpaceX has been perhaps the most aggressive in courting rideshare missions, with both dedicated rideshare launches and flying payloads on its Starlink launches, something Shotwell said will continue. “We’re a launch business. We want to make sure that everybody who wants to get to space gets to space, and we’re happy to accommodate almost any way of doing so,” she said.

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SpaceX Falcon 9 launch up next after ULA spy satellite mission hits snag

On Wednesday, November 3, a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 531 rocket was set to launch the NROL-101 mission – a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) of the United States government – from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. At neighboring Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) a SpaceX Falcon 9 stood ready and waiting to launch a US military GPS satellite just a day later.

Ultimately, due to an anomaly with launchpad ground support equipment, the ULA launch attempt of the Atlas V NROL-101 mission was scrubbed Wednesday evening. Admittedly, the weather did not look promising either with ground winds remaining a concern throughout the countdown window.

With an hour and forty-seven minutes to go – just five seconds after a planned fifteen-minute hold was released – the launch teams announced that an anomaly had been discovered with “a ground valve issue with the liquid oxygen system for the Atlas V first stage.” The discovery initiated an immediate stop to the countdown and launch teams entered into an unplanned hold that would delay the targeted launch time.

At first, ULA conducted remote troubleshooting, but the anomaly was not remedied and a return-to-pad team would be required to enter the secured launchpad to physically investigate.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V 531 rocket is stacked with the classified NROL-101 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office and the United States Space Force at Space Launch Complex 41 of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. (Richard Angle)

An anomaly team was deployed to investigate the valve that was restricting the flow of liquid oxygen (LOx) to the first stage of the Atlas V rocket. The hold remained for over an hour allowing the propellant lines to warm to a temperature that would be needed to be re-cooled prior to resuming the countdown.

Eventually, the return-to-pad team was able to evacuate the pad securing it for launch once again. Chill-down procedures to return the propellant lines back to an operational temperature began but were halted almost immediately. The anomaly had not been completely rectified and not enough time remained in the launch window to re-address it and re-chill the propellant lines. This led to the scrubbed launch attempt.

Typically, a scrubbed ULA mission for the NRO means that a neighboring SpaceX mission has to wait until the problem is fixed and ULA gets its rocket off of the nearby launchpad. However, that was not the case with Wednesday’s scrub. ULA stood down for a 48 hour recycle – rather than a typical 24 hour recycle – to attempt to launch the Atlas V 531 again on Friday, November 6.

This cleared the way for SpaceX to keep its targeted launch date of Thursday, November 5 during a launch window that extends approximately fifteen minutes from 6:24 – 6:39 p.m. EST (2324-2339 UTC) from SLC-40.

The payload fairing of the SpaceX Falcon 9 sports the mission artwork of the previous GPSIII-SV03 mission from June 30, 2020. (Richard Angle)

Following a successful static fire test of all nine Merlin 1D engines, SpaceX will attempt to launch the GPSIII-SV04 satellite for the United States military for a second time on Thursday, November 5.

The previous launch attempt on Friday, October 2 was thwarted at T-2 seconds due to anomalous engine start-up behavior. The unexplained early start-up of two Merlin 1D engines was eventually determined to be caused by “unexpected pressure rise in the turbomachinery gas generator” as explained by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

The engine anomaly prompted a thorough investigation of all Merlin 1D engines on the launch vehicle, as well as, a thorough investigation of the engines on two Falcon 9 launch vehicles designated for future NASA missions – the first operational rotation mission of the Commercial Crew Program, Crew-1, and the launch of the NASA and European Space Agency Earth-observation satellite, the Micheal Freilich Sentinel-6. Engines were eventually replaced on all three Falcon 9 launch vehicles.

A live hosted webcast of Thursday’s launch attempt will be provided on the company website and is expected to be available for viewing approximately fifteen minuted before liftoff.

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Space Force official: Launch scrubs are no reason to despair

WASHINGTON — A streak of United Launch Alliance and SpaceX launch scrubs has frustrated rocket company executives and space aficionados. But Space Force launch managers are not discouraged, and in fact see scrubs as proof that systems are working like they should, Col. Douglas Pentecost said Oct. 22.

ULA and SpaceX rockets over the past two months aborted launches just seconds before liftoff. “We see that as a success,” said Pentecost, the deputy director of the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center Launch Enterprise.

Pentecost spoke at a virtual space industry conference organized by AFCEA, the National Defense Industrial Association and the Air Force Association.

Launches were terminated because rockets saw “that something looked amiss,” he said. “That’s how we designed the system.”

ULA’s Delta 4 Heavy attempted in August and September to launch the National Reconnaissance Office’s NROL-44 satellite but ground equipment problems caused scrubs. ULA said last week that the company is testing the swing arm retraction system and has not yet announced a launch date. 

A SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of a Space Force GPS 3 satellite was aborted Oct. 2 due to an unexpected pressure rise in the turbomachinery gas generator on the launch vehicle. The company has not announced a new launch date. 

“Falcon 9 and Delta 4 stopped within seconds of launch? This is good stuff,” said Pentecost. ‘We’re learning a lot, we’re working with both ULA and SpaceX to understand what happened.”

Pentecost said the Space Force is planning to send three satellites to orbit in November, suggesting both NROL-44 and GPS 3 could be ready to launch next month. The third launch would be NROL-101, an NRO mission scheduled to fly on ULA’s Atlas 5.

NRO spokeswoman Maura Beard told SpaceNews that the agency emphasizes safety over schedule. “The series of delays we have experienced with NROL-44 are understandably disappointing,” she said. “But safety on the range and security of the payload are paramount.”

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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’s 13th Starlink launch set hours before next ULA Delta IV Heavy attempt

SpaceX and ULA’s next launch attempts have coincidentally wound up scheduled within hours of each other for the second time this month.

The date for SpaceX’s thirteenth Starlink – and 12th Starlink v1.0 – launch appeared to solidify earlier this week, pointing towards a T-0 of 2:17 pm EDT (UTC-4) on Thursday, September 17th. Almost simultaneously, after suffering a rare abort after engine ignition, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) has scheduled the fifth-to-last Delta IV Heavy rocket’s third launch attempt no earlier than (NET) 12:30 am EDT on September 18th.

In the 11 days since ULA’s second Delta IV Heavy launch abort, SpaceX has successfully completed two orbital Falcon 9 launches, placing the Argentinian SAOCOM 1B Earth observation spacecraft and 60 new Starlink satellites in orbit. Now, as ULA works to repair Delta IV Heavy for its third NROL-44 launch attempt, SpaceX is gearing up for its third launch – Starlink-12.

SpaceX has scheduled its next Starlink launch on September 17th – 12 hours or less before ULA’s next Delta IV Heavy launch attempt. (Tom Cross)

In Delta IV Heavy’s defense, the rocket was never designed with ease of operations in mind, and it launches so infrequently that it’s relatively normal for myriad launch pad and flight hardware issues to crop during each launch campaign. SpaceX suffers from its own technical challenges and launch delays on occasion but always intended for Falcon 9 to be a relatively simple and easy-to-launch rocket. Thanks to its industry-leading launch cadence, Falcon 9 and its two East Coast launch pads have so much collective operational experience and optimization that Delta IV-style surprises are a rarity.

Falcon 9 and Heavy boosters are also designed to be reusable and with the expectation that they will be static fired at least twice before their first launch. Due to a wide range of design decisions, Delta IV rockets can only attempt engine ignition once before major inspections, repairs, and part replacements are required. With three boosters, ULA’s NROL-44 Delta IV Heavy thus required substantial hands-on work after its post-ignition August 29th abort.

Delta IV Heavy self-immolates (intentionally) seconds before a rare post-ignition launch abort. (ULA)

This time around, a different Falcon 9 rocket with an entirely new batch of Starlink satellites is luckily in front of Delta IV Heavy, hopefully meaning that SpaceX will be able to launch before getting bogged down again by additional ULA-side delays. According to Next Spaceflight, Falcon 9 booster B1058 is assigned to Starlink-12, representing a turnaround of 59 days from its last launch.

If the launch goes according to plan and all 60 (possibly a few less if the mission includes rideshare payloads) new Starlnk satellites are healthy, SpaceX could be just two more Starlink launches away from a constellation that is ready to support its first public internet service beta tests. Starlink v1.0 L14 is currently scheduled to launch sometime in October, meaning that SpaceX could kick off public beta tests as early as November.

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