Aiming for a 13 Day Turnaround, NASA, SpaceX Set CRS-4 Launch Date for September 20th.

Last Minute Loading Prior to CRS-2. Image Credit: Stewart Money

For weeks, NASA’s official launch calendar has listed the date of the next SpaceX mission to the International Space Station, CRS-4,  as NET (No Earlier Than) September 19.

The CRS-4 mission marks the fourth in what was planned as a rapid fire series of launches of the Falcon 9 which began with Orbcomm 2 on July 14, followed by AsiaSat 8 which took place on August 5th, and then its sister spacecraft, AsiaSat 6 which was intended to take place only 22 days later.

When the AsiaSat 6 mission which was dealyed in order to allow for sufficient time to look for any common elements between the SpaceX Falcon 9 and the F9-R test article which was destroyed during a test in Texas, it seemed obvious that SpaceX would need to delay the NASA CRS-4 mission, perhaps by quite a bit.


AsiaSat 6 launched at 1:00 AM EDT on Sunday, September 7, and today NASA confirmed that the CRS-4 mission is set to launch from SLC-40  at 2:16 AM EDT on Saturday the 20th, a slip of only one day.  Assuming it makes an on-time departure, (never a sure thing, to be sure) SpaceX is poised to shatter its own previous best of 22 days between launches from the same pad, and eliminate the last vestiges of the suggestion that it will have difficulty working down its enormous launch manifest.

Although the upcoming flight is expected to feature another attempt at a soft ocean landing, one Elon Musk has suggested may be the last before the company moves on to a barge, floating platform or dry land, the overnight hour is likely to dim hopes for a recovery, or even for clear video.

For once however, the anticipation of another Dragon launch, and another attempt at recovery, is likely to be overshadowed by the looming reality of a NASA decision in the next round of its Commercial Crew program. With NASA having stated that the decision would likely come down in August or September, and only two weeks remaining in the latter, a verdict would seem likely to be announced either on Friday before the launch, or while the Dragon is actually berthed to the Space Station. If NASA keeps to that schedule and makes its announcement during the course of the SpaceX’s fifth mission to ISS and sixth of the Dragon overall, it strains credulity to believe that Elon Musk would not have something new to smile about.

The NASA Press Release is below:

The fourth SpaceX cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contract is scheduled to launch Saturday, Sept. 20, from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The one-day adjustment in the launch date was made to accommodate preparations of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and was coordinated with the station’s partners and managers.

The company’s Falcon 9 rocket, carrying its Dragon cargo spacecraft loaded with more than 5,000 pounds of scientific experiments and supplies, will lift off at 2:16 a.m. EDT. NASA Television coverage of the launch begins at 1:15 a.m. If for any reason the launch is postponed, the next launch opportunity is Sunday, Sept. 21 at approximately 1:53 a.m.

The mission, designated SpaceX CRS-4, is the fourth of 12 SpaceX flights NASA contracted with the company to resupply the space station. It will be the fifth trip by a Dragon spacecraft to the orbiting laboratory.

The spacecraft’s 2.5 tons of supplies, science experiments, and technology demonstrations includes critical materials to support 255 science and research investigations that will occur during the station’s Expeditions 40 and 41.

Science payloads include the ISS-Rapid Scatterometer to monitor ocean surface wind speed and direction; new biomedical hardware that will help facilitate prolonged biological studies of rodents in microgravity; and a study of a small flowering plant related to cabbage that allows scientists to study plant growth and adaptations in space.

New technology demonstrations aboard the Dragon spacecraft include the Special Purpose Inexpensive Satellite, or SpinSat, to test how a small satellite moves and positions itself in space using new thruster technology and the 3-D Printing In Zero-G Technology Demonstration, the first 3-D printer in space.

NASA will host a series of prelaunch news conferences Thursday, Sept. 18 and Friday, Sept. 19 at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which will be carried live on NASA TV and the agency’s website.

During panel discussions Sept. 18 at 9, 10, and 11 a.m., scientists and researchers will discuss the various science and research studies, including RapidScat, 3-D printing in Zero-G, technology to measure bone density, and model organism research using rodents, fruit flies and plants.

NASA senior leaders will host a briefing Sept. 19 at 9 a.m., followed by a prelaunch news conference at 10 a.m. at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. All these briefings, which are subject to a change in time, will be carried live on NASA TV and the agency’s website. A post-launch briefing will be held approximately 90 minutes after launch.

If launch occurs Sept. 20, NASA TV will provide live coverage Monday, Sept. 22, of the arrival of the Dragon cargo ship to the International Space Station. Grapple and berthing coverage will begin at 5:30 a.m. with grapple at approximately 7:30 a.m. Berthing coverage begins at 9:30 a.m.

The Dragon will remain attached to the space station’s Harmony module for more than four weeks and then splash down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California with almost two tons of experiment samples and equipment returning from the station.


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