SpaceX postpones launch – heads to Court

by Braddock Gaskill

SpaceX has announced a further postponement of the launch of their Falcon 1 rocket for roughly two to four weeks.

The launch had been expected Friday, but SpaceX postponed it after analyzing data from a wet rehearsal and attempted live-fire engine test on Thursday.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk reported that the vehicle was being lowered for further investigation.

No official explanation has yet been released by the company about the nature of the current problem, nor the reasons for the two successive launch delays earlier this week.  SpaceX expects more information to be made available in the next couple days.

SpaceX is attempting to launch from their own facilities in the small pacific Kwajalein Atoll, part of the US Army’s Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site.  Thursday’s flight readiness firing was to take the rocket through every stage of the count-down, including fuel loading and a brief engine firing while on the pad.

Heroic Efforts to Fly

SpaceX’s first launch attempt in late November was foiled by a vent valve on the ground LOX storage tanks inadvertently left open when the ground crew left the launch island, leaving insufficient LOX left on the island to launch after lengthy wind delays.

SpaceX tried again on December 19th, but high winds led to a long delay and a pump-out of the fueled rocket.  Unfortunately, the electronics in a vent valve on the first stage tank failed and shorted.  This prevented outside air from replacing the fuel as it was pumped out, resulting in a partial crumpling of the first stage tank.

Although the Falcon 1 tank had dual-redundant vent valves and triple redundant sensors, the shorted component caused the controlling computer to go into reboot, nullifying the redundancy.

SpaceX pushed hard over the holidays and through January to repair the damaged rocket, make improvements to the launch pad, and make a full review of all systems.  They shipped an entirely new replacement first stage from California to Kwajalein.  Then they turned to the design of new, retractable hold-down arms for the rocket to allow launching in high-wind conditions in an attempt to avoid the prior costly wind delays.

In the balmy 85 degree tropical winds, LOX boil-off combined with wind delays has been a major issue in both previous attempts.  For the next attempt, SpaceX plans to use a low-cost cryo blanket affixed to the rocket tanks with velcro straps that will tear away on lift-off to try to further insulate the tanks.

SpaceX v. Boeing and LockMart Court Hearing on Monday

On Monday, the Central District of California federal court will hear a motion to dismiss the anti-trust lawsuit that SpaceX brought against Lockheed Martin and Boeing last year.  This first hearing of the case is scheduled for Monday morning, Feb 13th, at 10am California time.

SpaceX alleges a history of anti-competitive behavior by Boeing and Lockheed, and claims that they have conspired to lock out any possible competition to the US military launch market.  Boeing and Lockheed have both filed motions to dismiss the case.

Both the anti-trust case and SpaceX delays are likely playing a factor in the Federal Trade Commissions (FTC) review of the proposed Lockheed and Boeing merger of Atlas V and Delta IV production and operations under the new United Launch Alliance (ULA). 

The FTC was originally slated to provide approval for the merger last fall, but has been delaying with monthly requests for more information.  Although the exact cause of the delay is unclear, the FTC is required to look into any civil violation of the Sherman Act, one of the charges alleged by SpaceX in their filing last October.

In addition, the Pentagon has not yet given their own blessing to the ULA merger.  Despite rumors in early January that the DoD was about to declare approval, the Pentagon has continued to withhold their opinion, stating only that they are continuing to study the issue.

The DoD is the customer for the first two Falcon 1 launches this year, and is slated for the first Falcon 9 launch in 2007.  The US Air Force has contracted $100 million worth of Falcon 1 launches to SpaceX through 2010.

SpaceX’s Elon Musk and Chris Thompson Q and A:

Private Space Flight Live updates:

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