SpaceX successfully completed a 2 second “hotfire” test of its Falcon 9 booster at Cape Canaveral yesterday, setting the stage for Friday’s launch to the International Space Station. This mission, known as CRS-2 is the second under the $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services Contract which calls for a minimum of 12 flights to the orbiting outpost.
Following Monday’s test, Elon Musk tweeted that everything looked good with “parameters nominal, ” and the engines generating 433 tons of thrust. In the wake of an apparent thrust chamber breach on the most recent flight to ISS, it is a safe bet that the last segment of the first stage burn will be of particular interest. If all goes as planned, this will be the last launch of the first edition Falcon 9 V1.0 and the Merlin 1c engine, which is due to be replaced in June by a Falcon 9 V1.1, powered by the new Merlin 1D engine.
Besides any extra scrutiny brought on by the engine issue, Friday’s launch is also likely to generate an unusual degree of interest, coming as it will, only two days after a press conference scheduled for tomorrow at the National Press Club in which Dennis Tito is expected to announce plans for a privately funded Mars flyby mission beginning in January 2018. According to reports, the 501 day mission would be launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy with a crew of two, aboard a specially modified version of the manned Dragon capsule, called DragonRider.
As if that were not enough, the launch also comes on the day of the deadline for budget sequestration making for a stark contrast between one government program which has produced impressive results on a comparative shoestring budget; NASA’s COTS and CRS, and an overall budgetary process which has become a national embarrassment.
Of particular note where SpaceX is concerned, according to this letter from NASA administrator Charles Bolden to Senator Barbara Mikulski, sequestration would mean NASA could not fund critical milestones to the Commercial Crew program in the 4th quarter, including the SpaceX Inflight Abort Test Review. The result “Overall availability of commercial crew transportation services would be significantly delayed, thereby extending our reliance on foreign providers for crew transportation to the International Space Station.”
It may be worth recalling that in refusing to fund the Commercial Crew program anywhere near the level requested by the Administration in each of the budget requests since it began, Congress intentionally set the stage for undercutting NASA’s Commercial Crew program (in favor of SLS) well before sequestration became an issue. While some have attempted to assert that there is no “fight” between the two very different components of NASA’s human spaceflight program, Commercial Crew and SLS, there most certainly is, which becomes obvious when considering the timeframes involved. Setting aside for a moment the relative merits of the SLS/Orion architecture, one thing is clear, it is an open-ended program, potentially stretching on for decades. Commercial Crew on the other hand is not, and its lifespan is tied to the International Space Station, the future of which is very uncertain after 2020. Each time Congress elects to underfund Commercial Crew, the schedule slides to the right and closer to 2020. With a first flight to ISS for NASA astronauts now looking like 2017, any further slip is likely to render the program pointless. One variable, a possible early decision to extend the life of ISS past 2020 could change the landscape, but it is a very safe bet than contractors with a vested interest SLS are likely to lobby heavily to end the ISS in order to assure continued funding for the big booster.
All of which brings us back around to SpaceX and Friday’s launch. If this fifth Falcon 9 follows its predecessors and completes its mission, SpaceX can leave the opening act of the Falcon 9 to the historians, and move on unhindered into the next era with the maiden flight of the Falcon 9 v1.1 and the Merlin 1D, the core components of the Falcon Heavy. A successful flight may also help underscore the technical plausibility of Dennis Tito’s proposed Mars flyby, which is facing a very different type of timeline, one driven by orbital mechanics, which thankfully are not within the purview of the U.S. Congress.