SpaceX improving launch cadence, testing new goals

by Chris Bergin

Following the launch of the NROL-76 spacecraft on Monday – which also included a successful Second Stage extended coast test – SpaceX is already deep into preparations to launch its next mission, with the Inmarsat 5 F4 satellite, in the middle of this month. The company’s improving launch cadence is being achieved mainly via the use of just one East Coast pad, pointing towards its future manifest potential once SLC-40 returns to action.

SpaceX Pace:

The NROL-76 success marked SpaceX’s first US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) mission, placing the company in a good position to win future national defense contracts.

“Thanks to the SpaceX team for the great ride, and for the terrific teamwork and commitment they demonstrated throughout,” said Betty Sapp, Director of the National Reconnaissance Office.

“They were an integral part of our government/industry team for this mission, and proved themselves to be a great partner.”

Despite the additional pressures associated with achieving mission success for a new customer, SpaceX wasn’t detracted from continuing to refine its future goals.

The morning launch in clear weather provided the most stunning views to date of the returning the first stage.

Notably, SpaceX no longer calls the booster landing as “experimental” on its webcast milestone list.

While SpaceX has not commented on the fairing recovery effort associated with the NROL-76 launch, this approach was tested during the recent SES-10 mission – with one section of fairing photographed – if not released – as intact on the ocean surface.

SpaceX is understood to be looking at an incremental approach to testing. Firstly – as now proven – to control and guide the fairing halves to a recovery point via small embedded thrusters, before utilizing large “Bouncy Castle” inflatables to protect the fairings prior to their return to port.

The NROL-76 mission also provided additional data points on the performance and utilization of the Second Stage, per future mission objectives. The test – which occurred after spacecraft separation – involved a “super long” coast phase demo, according to L2 information.

Per standard mission profiles, SpaceX fire up the Second Stage one final time in a period after spacecraft separation, allowing the stage to safely deorbit over a corridor in the Indian Ocean.

For this mission, the Second Stage was sent on a multi-hour coast, tracked by assets in the UK, Africa and along other points on its trajectory, providing data on the health of the stage back to controllers.

While the exact duration of the extended coast has not been revealed, it is known the Merlin 1D Vac did successfully reignite at the conclusion of the demo.

Back on Earth, SpaceX is already preparing for its next mission involving the lofting of the Inmarsat 5 F4 telecommunications satellite.

The flow requires an inspection of the 39A pad, known as the Shakedown Report, which over recent launches has shown the former Apollo and Shuttle pad is coping admirably in its new role with Falcon 9.

Aside from usual minor repairs – usually to hydraulic plumbing and wiring – only the addition of some blast protection has been installed on the pad, following the lesson’s learned from the first SpaceX launch from 39A earlier this year.

Providing the pad is cleared to receive the next Falcon 9, the rocket, involving booster 1034, will make the journey to 39A for its Static Fire test ahead of the Inmarsat 5 F4 mission.

The test is currently scheduled for NET May 11, ahead of a NET May 15 launch that has a window ranging from 1920 to 2010 Eastern.

Following a quick look data review, detanking and rollback to the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF), the rocket and payload will be mated ahead of returning to 39A for launch day.

Should all go to plan, SpaceX was even aiming to achieve a third launch of the month, with the CRS-11 Dragon mission that was scheduled to set sail on May 31. However, as per usual with launch schedules, an element of caution is required past the next manifest mission – one reason “NET (No Earlier Than)” is a stablemate of all launch date notifications. Ironically, the CRS-11 date was moved to NET June 1 shortly after the original publication of this article.

For planning purposes at least, a forward schedule does allow customers and launch fans alike to follow the upcoming manifest, aided by stage spotting at the McGregor test site.

While the booster (1036) for the BulgariaSat-1 mission (currently NET mid-June) is understood to be en route to SpaceX’s Texas facility for test firing, the current occupant of the test stand is still the center booster for the first Falcon Heavy mission.

This FH booster – known as 1033.1 – was expected to undergo a test firing at the end of last week. However, there hasn’t been any confirmation that firing took place. As of this week, the booster was still in place with its load cap installed.

There’s still a long period of time before the Falcon Heavy rocket boosters join forces to make up the first stack, with its debut roll to Pad 39A only occurring after the Transport/Erector/Launcher (TEL) has been modified to accommodate the three booster vehicle.

That modification process will only begin when SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral is back in action to return to Falcon 9 launches, freeing 39A to focus on Falcon Heavy and eventual Dragon 2 launches.

With the future addition of another launch complex in Texas, the potential launch cadence will improve incrementally.

Within the next few years, SpaceX will have 39A and SLC-40 as East Coast launch sites, Space Launch Complex -4E (SLC-4E) at Vandenberg as its Western Range site and the future addition of the South Texas Launch Site – being built at Boca Chica Village near Brownsville, Texas – all of which will allow for a dramatic increase in launch opportunities.

(Images: SpaceX, L2 – including Jacques van Oene/, Gary Blair at McGregor and L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*)

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