Fly Like You Test….

SpaceX conducted a static test fire of its Falcon 9 booster on Saturday in preparation for its upcoming mission to ISS, scheduled to launch at 8:35 PM ET on Sunday, October 7th.  Following the test fire, the booster was to be lowered to the horizontal position and returned to the hangar to be integrated with its Dragon capsule.

With three successful launches to its credit, the Falcon 9 is still a very young system, and one of the biggest challenges in the upcoming mission will simply be launching on time.  SpaceX has only a momentary launch opportunity on the first of three consecutive potential launch days beginning on Sunday, and is still looking for its first on time departure. However, with no issues reported in either the wet dress rehearsal or Saturday’s 2 second test fire, the signs may be pointing to achieving this goal, provided both the weather and range comply.

A United Launch Alliance Delta IV carrying an enhanced GPS 2F-3 satellite is currently due to lift off on Thursday morning, with a backup opportunity on Friday.  If the flight is delayed until Friday for any reason, any difficulty in resetting the U.S. Air Force Eastern Test Range  equipment could push the SpaceX launch back. Range delays are not an uncommon experience, and in fact the most recent Atlas V  launch out of Vandenberg was delayed for more than a month as technicians sought to repair a computer malfunction in a new control center built by Lockheed Martin.

Range issues are one of the key reasons SpaceX has cited the desire to locate its own separate, commercial launch facility where it can effectively manage launch schedules without externally driven delays. More than 50 years into the space age, the chicken and egg problem of high launch costs and corresponding small launch markets have effectively prevented any meaningful progress in developing the skill and techniques to conduct launch operations on steady, sustained basis.

Nevertheless, with a growing manifest of government and commercial launches, made possible by revolutionary cost reductions with the Falcon 9, SpaceX is taking incremental steps along that path.  The practice of pre-launch test firings such as that conducted on Saturday are helping to build the knowledge base to understand the vehicle, tighten key parameters to gradually eliminate unnecessary aborts, and ultimately to know when to launch and when to delay.   It bears noting that a full test fire is made possible by the fact that unlike most of its competitors, including the Atlas V and Delta IV, the Falcon 9 launch vehicle  does not use solid rocket boosters in any configuration.  The use of SRB’s, such as the two which are mated to the Delta IV now awaiting launch at Cape Canaveral, add to lift off performance, but at considerable expense and make it impossible to conduct a full test fire prior to launch.

Looking to the future, it seems highly unlikely that expendable SRB’s would be on the development path to the type of rapidly, reusable space transportation systems necessary to open the space frontier, and that in forgoing their use, as in so much else, SpaceX is showing that retro is sometimes the cutting edge.

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