SpaceX is preparing to return to launch action with the CRS-15 Dragon mission to the International Space Station (ISS). A key milestone towards next Thursday’s launch was the Static Fire test, that took place on Saturday at Cape Canaveral’s SLC-40.
This latest mission is set to take place just under a month since a Falcon 9 successfully deployed the SES-12 spacecraft.
The CRS-15 mission will mark a return to a higher pace launch cadence, with the Telstar 19 Vantage launch from SLC-40 scheduled to follow on July 19, quickly followed a day later by the Falcon 9 launch of the Iridium NEXT-7 mission from SLC-4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
SpaceX is expected to launch no less than two missions per month for the remainder of the year.
A milestone prior to each one of these launches is the Static Fire test. This is a key dress rehearsal for the rocket, pad and launch control team, allowing for any issues to be ironed out ahead of the big day.
SpaceX does not discuss Static Fire flows until after they have completed the short firing of the nine Merlin 1D engines, which includes a small delay while engineers confirm a good test via a process known as the “Quick Look” review.
The flow appears to be on track for a NET (No Earlier Than) Saturday test, with visual observations of the Transporter/Erector/Launch (TEL) being rolled back off SLC-40 and moved into the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) in the early hours of Friday. The booster and TEL then joined forces prior to rolling back out to the pad for the test on Saturday.
For this next mission, a flight-proven booster, B1045.2, will be employed. This booster successfully launched the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, spacecraft back in April.
As such the booster will end its short career with another key NASA mission. It also marks the final Block 4 in SpaceX’s inventory that is destined to launch a commercial mission.
A final Block 4 (B1042.2) is currently understood to be preparing to loft the In-Flight Abort test as one of SpaceX’s Commercial Crew Program milestones later this year.
The transition to the Block 5 has already begun, with the first launch of the upgraded Falcon 9 taking place with the lofting of the Bangabandhu-1 satellite back in May. As such, all remaining Block 4 boosters have been expendable missions, as is the case with the CRS-15 launch, with no recovery planned.
The following two missions will be recovered, both via the use of the two SpaceX drone ships located on the East Coast (Of Course I Still Love You) for the Telstar 19 Vantage Block 5 booster and the West Coast-based (Just Read The Instructions) for the Iridium NEXT-7 Block 5 booster.
For the CRS-15 mission, the Falcon 9 will be pushing the latest Dragon uphill with 5,900 pounds of research, crew supplies and hardware for the orbital outpost.
She will reach the ISS on Monday, July 2 – where NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold, backed up by fellow NASA astronaut Drew Feustel, will supervise Dragon’s capture.
Dragon will be captured by the Latching End Effector (LEE) on the Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS) prior to installation on Node 2 of the ISS. There will be no lack of synergy with the Dragon’s capture by the Canadian robotic assets given Dragon’s unpressurized trunk is carrying another LEE, a spare that will replace the failed unit astronauts removed during a series of spacewalks in 2017.
Dragon will spend around a month berthed on the Station prior to returning for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
There could be around 15 Falcon 9 missions – subject to natural schedule stretch – through the remainder of this year, along with the potential of a Falcon Heavy launch in November or December.
Following on from the successful test flight of the Falcon Heavy in February, SpaceX is set to launch the Space Test Program Flight 2 (STP-2) mission along with a multitude of satellites.
However, with just one Falcon Heavy mission in the bag, the USAF appears to have a large amount of confidence in SpaceX’s big rocket after the award of a key military launch in 2020 – apparently certifying the rocket in the process, based on SpaceX’s reaction to the award.
The award of an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) launch – a 130 million firm-fixed price contract – will deliver Air Force Space Command (AFSPC)-52 satellite to the intended orbit.
“SpaceX is honored by the Air Force’s selection of the Falcon Heavy to launch the competitively-awarded AFSPC-52 mission,” noted SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell. “On behalf of all our employees, I want to thank the Air Force for certifying the Falcon Heavy, awarding us this critically important mission and for their trust and confidence in our company.
“SpaceX is pleased to continue offering the American taxpayer the most cost-effective, reliable launch services for vital national security space missions.”
SpaceX was competing with one other provider, with the assumption pointing to United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV-Heavy based on the competing class with the Falcon Heavy. However, this assumption continues to be flagged by industry experts familiar with contract awards of this nature.
Based on the Request For Proposals (RFP) document, which provided reference information for the spacecraft as being 6,350kg to a GTO of at least 35,188km X 185km, along with other factors, the other rocket was highly likely to be the Atlas V 551.
The Atlas V has never failed and ULA often cites this mission success parameter when courting new missions, while Falcon Heavy has only launched once on a test flight that Elon Musk previewed with fears it could blow up on the pad. Thus the assumed cost differences between the two rockets likely became the major consideration in the awarding of the contract.
Using a Falcon Heavy on this type of mission will likely provide ample margin to allow for the recovery of the boosters, although there will have been a major statement of intent if the highly capable Falcon Heavy can outbid even the Atlas V – and thus also the Delta IV-Heavy by an even greater margin – on EELV contract offerings.