Bulgariasat launch realigns; SpaceX secures X-37B launch contract

by Chris Gebhardt

SpaceX has realigned the launch date for the Bulgariasat-1 mission, which due to a two day launch delay with CRS-11 is now targeting launch No Earlier Than Saturday, 17 June – continuing the company’s cadence of one launch every two weeks.  More impressively, SpaceX has also officially landed a contract with the Air Force for the launch of the X-37B miniature space plane, a launch now scheduled for sometime in August 2017.

Bulgariasat-1 launch date realigns as overall cadence maintained:

With a two day launch slip to the CRS-11 mission to the International Space Station, it was inevitable – given the tight turnaround timelines at LC-39A – that the Bulgariasat’s 15 June launch date would likely be too tight to achieve.

Exactly what kind of hit the two day launch delay to CRS-11 would have to Bulgariasat was not fully known until Tuesday afternoon, following post-launch evaluations of Pad-A and a realignment of all work timelines.

As expected, pad 39A came through the CRS-11 launch in near pristine condition, with no major issues noted via the pad shakedown report.

The excellent condition of the pad paved the way for SpaceX to maintain its seemingly now-standard cadence between launches, holding Bulgariasat to a two-week turnaround from CRS-11.

In all, the two day slip to CRS-11 imparted a two day slip to Bulgariasat, with the static fire moving to 13 June with launch adjusting to Saturday 17 June.

Regardless of the slip, launch preparations for Bulgariasat began in earnest just hours after the launch of CRS-11, when SpaceX transported the flight-proven booster the mission will use into the HIF (Horizontal Integration Facility) at LC-39A.

With a launch on 17 June, Bulgariasat will just barely miss the record turnaround time on the same pad for SpaceX.

The record is currently held by TurkmenSat 1, which launched just 13 days 2 hours 49 minutes after the CRS-6 mission from SLC-40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

If current schedules and day of launch time on the 17th hold, Bulgariasat will launch 13 days 21 hours 3 minutes after CRS-11.

Presently, Bulgariasat has a two-hour launch window that opens at 14:10 EDT and closes at 16:10 EDT on 17 June.

SpaceX secures X-37B launch contract, becomes first mission for the U.S. Air Force:

Perhaps even more telling of SpaceX’s success and its growing place in the launch industry was the unexpected and critical announcement in front of the U.S. Senate Armed Service Committee by Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson on Tuesday.

Toward the end of her testimony, Sec. Wilson stated, in response to a line of questioning from Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico that, “this is the model of the X37 which will be going up again … on top of a SpaceX launcher in August.”

The news came as quite a surprise to observers who had no previous knowledge that such an announcement was going to be made during Sec. Wilson’s testimony.

However, while no official forewarning was given to this announcement, speculation that SpaceX would land the contract had been a part of space policy discussion since the previous X-37B mission landed back at the Kennedy Space Center on 7 May 2017.

When the fourth flight of the X-37B successfully concluded at KSC’s former Shuttle Landing Facility, the U.S. Air Force issued a statement saying that “The Air Force is preparing to launch the fifth X-37B mission from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, later in 2017.”

Quite notable in the Air Force’s statement at the time was the glaring lack of information regarding the launch vehicle that would loft the fifth X-37B flight.

Previously, all four X-37B missions were taken to space by a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket.

With Sec. Wilson’s statement Tuesday, it is now known that ULA lost the contract to launch the fifth X-37B mission – though exactly how that occurred, whether SpaceX submitted a cheaper bid or if the Air Force went directly to SpaceX instead of ULA, is unknown.

In a statement released after Sec. Wilson’s testimony, Randy Walden, Director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said, “We are excited about this new partnership on creating flexible and responsive launch options and are confident in SpaceX’s ability to provide safe and assured access to space for the X-37B program.”

In large part, securing this type of contract with the US Air Force – the first mission SpaceX will launch for the Air Force – is a huge testament to the work the company has done to introduce Air Force and NASA suggested/mandated upgrades in the Block 4 and 5 variants of the Falcon 9 rocket.

While the Block 4 and 5 upgrades are designed in part to help SpaceX secure U.S. government contracts as well as to launch U.S. astronauts for NASA as part of the Commercial Crew Program, the X-37B – a critical U.S. military asset – is crucial to SpaceX’s goal of proliferating throughout the launch market and introducing low-cost, reliable, and rapid access to space to all potential customers.

Moreover, officially securing the X-37B launch contract (exactly when the contract was awarded is unknown) likely stems from how much SpaceX proved themselves to the federal government with the NROL-76 launch – the first clandestine mission for the U.S. government launched by the private company.

The NROL-76 launch campaign was a learning period for both organizations, and the willingness of the Air Force to hand SpaceX such a critical launch contract so quickly after completion of the NROL-76 campaign speaks volumes to SpaceX’s ability to please its U.S. government customer.

Moreover, with the official announcement of the contract just two months ahead of launch, the contract also speaks to SpaceX’s ability to rapidly adjust its already crowded launch manifest to allow for such last-minute contract announcements.

In relative terms for spaceflight, a last-minute adjustment of the launch manifest for SpaceX was already seen just last month when the Bulgariasat mission opted to use a flight-proven Falcon 9 core – which in part allowed it to advance ahead of the delaying Intelsat 35e mission, which slipped from mid-June to early-July.

While SpaceX’s manifest is certainly packed, the ability to adjust the manifest and shuffle flights around is crucial to an industry that often experiences both provider and customer delays in the final weeks of a launch campaign.

In this way, while all of the missions downstream from the now August inserted X-37B launch campaign will slip, it’s important to note that those missions might already have been moving to the right regardless, and that a shift to the manifest to allow X-37B an August launch slot might not actually be as significant as it appears.

This would seem to bear out based on what is currently known of SpaceX’s launch manifest, which prior to X-37B’s August launch date announcement showed only two missions schedule from LC-39A that month.

Those two missions were the 1 August launch of CRS-12 to the Space Station and the “No Earlier Than August” flight of KoreaSat 5A.

While the manifest beyond CRS-12 remains somewhat nebulous as SpaceX works to complete rebuild and reactivation of SLC-40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station so that the final 60 days of work can be performed on 39A to prepare it for the first flight of the Falcon Heavy, only two scheduled launches in August seems to allow for X-37B to slip into the manifest without much disruption to other customers.

Currently, it is understood that the mission will utilize a brand new booster, flying the second mission of the new Block 4 upgrade.

This was seemingly confirmed by the U.S. Air Force Tuesday evening, which issued a statement saying, “This mission will be the program’s first launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 Upgrade launch vehicle.”

Nonetheless, a total launch mass to Low Earth Orbit of about 5,000 kg (11,000 lb) should allow X-37B to fall into an ascent mass profile that will permit the booster to perform an RTLS (Return To Launch Site) landing at LZ-1 just under 8 minutes after liftoff.

(Images: SpaceX, Air Force, NASA, C-SPAN, NASASpaceflight.com forum)

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