After working through a four month stand-down as it sought to understand and address the cause of the September 1st, 2016 explosion that destroyed a Falcon 9 booster and its payload during a pre-launch wet dress rehearsal at Cape Canaveral, SpaceX returned to flight in typically dramatic fashion on Saturday, successfully launching 10 Iridium Next satellites into orbit, while also pulling off its first fully successful ASDS rocket landing in the Pacific Ocean.
Utilizing a revised propellant loading procedure which was implemented to prevent over-chilling of the helium pressurization tanks and a re-creation of the circumstances which investigators believe led to the Amos-6 pad ‘anomaly,’ RP-1 (kerosene) and liquid oxygen were pumped into the Falcon 9 some 70 and 45 minutes prior to liftoff respectively. That marked a significant change from the much briefer 35 minute simultaneous loading window which had been used beginning with the Orbcomm-2 launch on December 21st, 2015.
A new plan in place, liftoff took place at 9:54:39 AM PST from Space Launch Complex 4E at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base. Moments later, the Falcon 9 first stage returned to its first-ever fully successful landing from a West Coast launch, touching down aboard the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship “Just Read the Instructions.” And it did so in stunningly gorgeous, real-time video which captured the booster’s descent and bulls-eye landing in bright daylight and with no loss of signal.
For SpaceX, as well as for a long line of customers who have been waiting through the company’s second stand-down in just over a year’s time, Saturday’s launch was no doubt accompanied by a huge sigh of relief, albeit one tempered by the understanding that there is still a very problematic backlog to work through, and little margin for error. Moreover, some potential commercial orders have been lost, even as the company has done itself no favors in the bitter battle to establish an even playing field in the defense and national security launch market, where 100% mission success carries an even higher premium.
And somewhere on the calendar is a date with destiny in the form of the Falcon Heavy. After getting off to such a successful start with the Falcon 9 only to see two catastrophic failures take place well after recent history (and competitor records) suggest there should not be any, the prospect of a 27 engine takeoff, new flight loads, and new separation events should likely terrify everyone, including Mr. Musk himself.
An optimist might point out however, that as far as the somewhat problematic second stage is concerned, the ride should be pretty much the same.
And only half-way through the first month of a new year, surely we can all afford to be optimists, at least for a moment.