The SpaceX CRS-7 cargo mission to the International Space Station has been moved from Friday to Sunday, June 28th with a new liftoff time of 10:21 AM EDT from Cape Canaveral’s SLC-40. If liftoff, which must take place exactly on time, is delayed for any reason, a backup slot on Monday the 29th is reserved. In that event, the new launch time would move forward to 9:58 AM.
The CRS-7 Dragon will be loaded with more than 5,000 lbs. of supplies, including stowed away in its “trunk” one of two new International Docking Adapters which are required to enable Commercial Crew vessels from SpaceX and Boeing to dock with ISS. Just when one of the adapters will be put to first use is an open question, as yet another in a series of budget request cuts to NASA’s Commercial Crew program appear poised to ensure that first operational flights will be delayed beyond the projected 2017 start date.
While that aspect U.S. commercial spaceflight remains up in the air, the attention of many on Sunday’s mission will focus on what is coming back back down, and rather quickly at that. The CRS-7 mission will feature what will be the third attempt at landing a Falcon 9 first stage on the company’s automated spaceport drone ship “Just Read the Instructions.” The most recent effort which took place during the CRS-6 launch on April 14th, resulted in an excruciatingly close near miss in which the stage landed on the deck, but with sufficient lateral velocity to cause it to tip over and tumble into the Atlantic.
At least one company is confident that SpaceX will succeed in its recovery efforts this year. On Friday, Space News reported that early adopter SES, whose SES-8 comsat was the first geostationary transfer orbit payload for the Falcon 9, has indicated it might be willing to be the first to fly a payload on a “used” stage, providing SpaceX can recover the first stage of its SES-9 booster which is scheduled for no later than September, and is willing to offer a substantial discount as well. No stranger to risk, the SES-9 flight will also be the first to feature the Merlin 1-D engines running at full capacity instead of the current 85%, a necessary increase to allow for first stage recovery on GTO missions.
SpaceX had previously planned to attempt first stage recovery on a non LEO flight, that of the DSCOVR launch to deep space on February 11th, but that effort was abandoned when high seas prevented the landing platform from reaching its station. Given the progress witnessed with the CRS-6 mission, hopes are high that the third time really will be the charm, but if it is another near miss, Elon Musk might want to re-think his answer to a suggestion made by SES chief technical officer Martin Halliwell relayed in the same Space News story:
“Halliwell said SES is such a strong believer in rocket reusability’s cost-reduction promise that the company suggested to SpaceX a way to improve the likelihood of recovering a Falcon 9 first stage. “We asked Elon [Musk, SpaceX’s founder]: You almost landed on the platform. It landed, a leg broke, the rocket fell over and went into the sea and they couldn’t recover it,” Halliwell said. “So we said to him: Why don’t you put a net around the platform? You know what his answer was? ‘That’s not cool.’