SpaceX Falcon 9 conducts static fire as Falcon Heavy waits in the wings

by Chris Bergin

SpaceX has conducted a Static Fire test on the Falcon 9 set to launch the CRS-12 Dragon to the International Space Station (ISS). A successful test on Thursday paves the way for a launch on Monday, which will include another landing attempt on the LZ-1 landing pad that is already being prepared for the dual booster landing during the maiden Falcon Heavy mission.

Static Fire Test:

It’s been over a month since the last SpaceX launch, which is out of step with the company’s recently accelerated launch cadence.

The pause in the manifest was mainly due to maintenance tasks on the Eastern Range, although SpaceX had just come to the end of a four mission run, completed in the space of just over a one month period.

Following some musical chairs on the schedule due to a delayed Atlas V mission with TDRS-M – which held priority on the Range under orders from NASA – SpaceX’s CRS-12 mission eventually settled on an August 13 launch target, with the Static Fire test aligning to Wednesday.

However, one further change was to come, as a minor processing issue with the rocket caused an additional one day slip for both the Static Fire and launch date. The new target for launch is now 12:31 local time – an instantaneous T-0 – on Monday, with berthing to follow on Wednesday.

The Static Fire test is a key dress rehearsal for the launch team and the rocket. Although all recent tests have been issue-free, SpaceX is continuing to conduct the firings without the payload attached following the loss of the Amos-6 spacecraft during a test just under a year ago.

That incident heavily damaged the SLC-40 pad, especially below ground level as burning propellant from the deceased rocket drained into the base structures. That pad is close to returning to action, with the latest information citing the potential return for the SES-11 mission at the end of September.

Once SLC-40 is classed as activated, engineering teams will work to convert the 39A TEL to cater for the maiden flight of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, a vehicle that is already undergoing mating tests between the core and side boosters inside the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF).

This work is taking place alongside the Falcon 9 rocket that has now rolled out to 39A for her Static Fire test ahead of launching the CRS-12 Dragon.

The Range stand down period between the previous launch and the CRS-12 flow has allowed for additional work to take place on the 39A’s Rotating Service Structure (RSS), as the former shuttle-specific element of the launch pad is removed.

Almost all of the sheet metal has been removed, leaving just the skeleton of the steel pipe trusses, which will be removed for scrap in the next few months.

Another noticeable change is taking place at the LZ-1 landing pad, which the CRS-12 booster (B1039) is set to return to after helping to push Dragon uphill.

A second landing site at LZ-1 is under construction, which is also related to the build-up towards the maiden flight of the Falcon Heavy.

During the test flight, both of the rocket’s side boosters will attempt a landing at LZ-1 within seconds of each other. The core booster will attempt a landing downrange on SpaceX’s drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” (OCISLY).

Elon Musk recently raised eyebrows during comments made at the ISSR&D conference by lowering the expectations for a successful launch near the end of this year.

“I want to make sure to set expectations accordingly, I hope it makes it far enough beyond the pad so that it doesn’t cause pad damage. I would consider even that a win, to be honest.”

However, Mr. Musk is notorious for publically stressing the difficulties associated with new milestones, as previously seen when taking to Twitter to play down the chances of success with some of the recent booster returns, which – of course – were successful.

While this first launch of the Falcon Heavy will be incredibly challenging, which is one of the reasons there isn’t a paying customer riding on the flight, experts have stressed the rocket “won’t gain required authorization to launch” if there was “an unacceptable risk” of the rocket blowing up and destroying 39A.

Pad 39A’s importance to SpaceX’s near and long term goals is obvious, with the complex providing the center point for Falcon Heavy, Crewed Dragon flights and what is expected to be the home pad for a subscale Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) – the latter to gain an updated overview from Mr. Musk at the upcoming IAC conference in Australia.

This may include a major update on the progress being made at SpaceX’s McGregor test center on the Raptor engine that will power BFR, an engine understood to be making impressive leaps during an ongoing developmental test cycle that has included numerous hot fire tests.

However, the team working on the BFR is relatively tiny compared to the number of staff employed on the crewed Dragon, Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9 – the latter of which is the immediate focus as SpaceX prepares to launch the latest Cargo Dragon mission to the Station.

While Falcon 9 now launches an array of different spacecraft, its the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) missions for NASA that have contributed a financial foundation behind SpaceX’s forward thinking aspirations.

This is one of the reasons Elon’s old password was “I_Love_NASA”, according to the man himself when discussing NASA’s role in SpaceX’s growth at the ISSR&D conference.

(Images: SpaceX, L2 imagery, Brady Kennison for and L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (Falcon Heavy to Dragon to Starliner, MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*))

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