Congress Punts, Falcon Sits, Dragon Lands and the Air Force Is Confused

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Space Launch Complex 36 as the site of the SpaceX lease. That site is being leased by Moon Express. The SpaceX site is Space Launch Complex 13.

Original story:

In the end, it was a weird day for SpaceX.

The day began with public confirmation of a deal between SpaceX and the USAF to lease Cape Canaveral’s SLC-13 for a period of five years. The pad, which will join SLC-40 and the Kennedy Space Center’s Pad 39A as part of a growing list of SpaceX facilities on three coasts; Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf, will be used for recovering the first stage of the Falcon 9-R reusable booster. As the first dedicated landing facility for a reusable orbital booster other than the Shuttle, it is a remarkable development, made even more so by the fact that SpaceX is undertaking the effort at its own expense.

At the same time, it is more than a little ironic that Tuesday, February 10, found the current Falcon 9 still sitting on nearby SLC-40 after an Air Force range failure forced the scrub of Sunday evening’s planned launch of the DSCOVR spacecraft. Ground support events happen, and as former NASA Shuttle manager Wayne Hale pointed out after the first scrub, it seems to be axiomatic that perfect launch weather seems to invite either vehicle or ground support problems. Nevertheless, two points need to be made. First, in inking today’s agreement, the Air Force is in effect giving SpaceX permission to land on its property, even as it still refuses to grant the company the right to even compete for the ability to take off from the same. Simply amazing.

And then there is this. While there is no doubt that Cape Canaveral and the Eastern Test Range is suffering from broken down, outdated equipment which all to often hampers space launches, it is difficult to find much in the way of sympathy. What upgrades could be undertaken if the Air Force wasn’t actively subsidizing United Launch Alliance to the tune of $1 billion per year over  what it pays for launches themselves?  Or to put it another way, what happened to the $4 billion in savings ULA and most of the Alabama congressional delegation claims has been the result of extending the ULA monopoly to a 36 core block buy? The answer is nothing, because it didn’t exist in the first place.

So, now able to land, but not yet able to launch an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) class payload, the Falcon 9 which was scheduled to lift off Tuesday evening did not, due to unacceptably high upper level winds. If there is a silver lining, it is that in delaying the DSCOVR launch to Wednesday, SpaceX may have a better chance at attempting to land the first stage. Based on a tweet by Elon Musk, even if the Falcon had lifted off today, developing gale force conditions in the Atlantic recovery zone would have prevented the booster recovery attempt Sunday’s near perfect conditions would have enabled.



Wednesday is still a crap shoot, but marine forecasts call for subsiding conditions later in the day. Launch predictions conditions on the other hand, are even better than Sunday, with a 95% chance of favorable weather. Liftoff of the Deep Space Climate Observatory is now set for 6:03 PM EST. If the third attempt is scrubbed, the next one will be delayed until at least February 20th.

Even as activity came to a standstill on the East Coast, in space and then in the Pacific, plans proceeded apace with the departure and landing of the CRS-5 Dragon spacecraft, which splashed down at 7:44 PM EST. SpaceX has now launched to orbit and successfully recovered the Dragon spacecraft seven times. Each, with the addition of seats and little more (but not much) in the way of life support equipment, might have just as easily carried crew. Abort capability is a different story, but that is about to be put to the test as soon as March.

Coming Home Tweet by Elon Musk

Coming Home
Tweet by Elon Musk

It is just that much more ironic then, that on the same day SpaceX recovered its seventh capsule from orbit, surpassing the the total number of manned Mercury flights, the most recent of which was conducted 52 years ago, the House of Representatives dealt the Commercial Crew program yet another blow by passing a FY 2015 authorization bill which is nearly a verbatim copy of last year’s bill, calling for “at least one Commercial Crew provider” even as it reiterates the implausible notion the SLS should serves as a “backup” for that capacity. As both bodies begin working on a multi-year funding bill, it appears increasingly likely that NASA will not have the capacity to support both Boeing and SpaceX through their respective milestones in time to secure a 2017 first launch.

Well, there’s always tomorrow.

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1 Comment on "Congress Punts, Falcon Sits, Dragon Lands and the Air Force Is Confused"

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  1. If it comes down to a single provider for Commercail Crew and NASA selects SpaceX — as seems likely from my previous analysis of total scoring — expect Congress to do a quick two-step and make enough funding available for Boeing too.

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