It is after all, just a test launch. But what a test launch it is. Whenever the Falcon 9 v1.1 finally lifts off from Vandenberg, Ca. it will carry much more than a 700 lb. satellite, (as well as a couple of cubesats) which got a bargain basement price for accepting an elevated level of risk.
In the immediate term, the matter seems rather clear. SpaceX has an enormous backlog of launches on its manifest, all of which depend on this booster having a good day. Still, a test launch is in the end, exactly that, and barring some unforeseen flaw in the overall system, say the bending motion in what is now a very long, narrow, booster, any difficulties will no doubt be ironed out, and the company will learn and move on, as it has throughout its decade long history.
What is more important however, are a particular subset of launches which are not yet on the manifest, but could become ever so closer with an immediate, and undeniable success, the potential launch awards under the Commercial Crew program. As with many aspects of the Falcon 9 v1.1’s maiden flight, it’s not so much that an early stumble could severely harm its prospects, as much as it is that a strong start could substantially improve them. And it should be noted, that there are some potential issues, such as separation difficulties with the new 5.2 meter fairing, which could endanger this mission’s outcome without having any significant bearing on the Commercial Crew prospects.
And then there is ongoing struggle to fully break in to the EELV market. Recent weeks have seen multiple stories in trade publications detailing the difficult choices the Air Force is facing in maintaining or improving various space related defense programs such as GPS III, or the Space Fence, in the face of ever tighter budgets. There is no getting around the uncomfortable fact that wildly escalating costs in the EELV program, and the price of simply getting assets to orbit, is having a deleterious and limiting effect on just what assets will be deployed in the future. It is, quite simply, harming national security. While the Air Force does at last have a plan in place, and a schedule of sorts, for allowing new entrants to its launch program, a successful maiden flight for the new Falcon 9 would not only build on the 5 for 5 record established with the original version of the booster, if followed by equally successful outcomes in the flurry of scheduled launches leading up to the its next NASA mission, CRS-3, provide compelling evidence that it time to re-evaluate the EELV contract sooner rather than later.
For all the interest in the launch itself, it is perhaps not what is going to space, but what is coming back down, which is the biggest story line of all. SpaceX has justifiably cautioned that the odds of achieving its effort to conduct a controlled atmospheric re-entry and subsequent near sea level soft landing of the Falcon 9 first stage are very low. It is doubtful they are sandbagging. After failed past efforts to recover both Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 first stage boosters by parachute, the company probably has a better understanding than just about anyone on just how difficult a task that is, in part because they have been the only ones actually trying. Nevertheless, SpaceX has clearly seen something in the data from those previous efforts which says it can be done, and is worth the expense, which can be measured not in just this launch, but the entire Grasshopper effort, to keep at it. With few details released about the effort, it is difficult to gauge what the benchmarks for progress are, but it seems reasonable to assume that a successful engine re-start, and measurable controlled reduction in velocity prior to hitting the atmosphere would mark a substantial accomplishment, and likely spark a near panic in Evry, France. With SpaceX clearly repeatedly demonstrating the ability to conduct controlled landing in McGregor, and soon to expand the envelope in higher and faster testing in New Mexico, ultimate success may just reside at whatever altitude ever higher Grasshopper and ever lower returning Falcon 9 first stages happen to meet. As the first act in what could be a very long, or surprisingly short play, it’s almost showtime, and rest assured, the rest of the world’s launch providers will be watching, even as some may be frantically sticking pins in a Falcon 9 voodoo doll even now.
Finally, there is this. Just this week, a series of papers summarizing findings from the Curiosity rover have confirmed that Mars is wetter than most of us ever thought, or perhaps even dared dream. With estimates of 2 pints of water in every cubic foot of soil, recoverable and releasable through centuries old technology, it is time to be going and SpaceX was formed for the sole purpose of doing just that. Most significantly, the tall, white booster scheduled to lift off from Vandenberg tomorrow (or soon thereafter) is the vital core component of the long awaited Falcon Heavy, and a successful launch, whenever, it comes, sets the stage for its debut by clearing away the largest piece of development risk.
So, at whatever point our attention turns back to Vandenberg and the maiden launch of the Falcon Heavy, notably from the same transporter/erector upon which the Falcon 9 v1.1 currently sits, we will be witnessing not just another space first, but the opening of a new era in which Mars is within reach.
Falcon 9 v1,1 is scheduled for liftoff with the CASSIOPE satellite in a window opening at 9:00 AM PT, 12:00 PM EDT, on Sunday, September 29th. A backup date is available for Monday.
Good luck, and Godspeed.