Sunday, February 19, 2017

SpaceX Launches Its First Rocket From Iconic Florida Pad: The unmanned Falcon 9, carrying a cargo capsule for the international space station, takes off from Kennedy Space Center

The Wall Street Journal 
February 19, 2017 9:59 a.m. ET

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. successfully launched a cargo capsule into orbit Sunday, for the first time using a historic Florida pad that sent the first astronauts to the Moon and served as home base for the space shuttle.

The trouble-free blastoff of an unmanned Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon capsule, filled with supplies and experiments headed for the international space station, was the initial mission for entrepreneur Elon Musk’s company from launch complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.

It also marked the first company-owned and -operated spacecraft ever to launch from the venerable complex, which exemplified U.S. space endeavors and heroic astronaut exploits from early phases of the Cold War.

Sunday’s mission came a day after a technical problem prompted a launch abort roughly 10 seconds before blastoff.

The latest countdown, however, proceeded like clockwork. Just before 9:39 a.m. local time, the 230-foot rocket lifted off with some 5,500 pounds of cargo and roughly 10 minutes later, the capsule separated to begin its two-day trip to link up with the international orbiting laboratory. It was SpaceX’s second launch of 2017, in what portends to be a pivotal year for the closely held Southern California company.

Greeted by celebratory yells from SpaceX employees observing the launch from mission control in Hawthorne, Calif., the rocket went smoothly through its point of maximum aerodynamic stress.

Back in Florida, the main portion of the booster landed vertically near the launch facility in the first daytime reentry and successful return to Earth of a Falcon 9 first stage.

After liftoff, government space officials said the capsule’s solar arrays had deployed right on schedule. That means it was in the proper orbit and powered up as expected to proceed with the rest of the mission.

The Kennedy Space Center facility is hallowed ground for the space world, because it was the starting point for manned Apollo missions to the Moon and saw the birth and demise of the entire space shuttle fleet. Frequent flights relying on its revived payload-integration operation and towering ground-support facility are now a central element of the drive to increase launch tempo by SpaceX, as the company is called.

The goal is to use the Florida pad, along with another launch complex at nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and a third location on the central coast of California, to accelerate the pace of SpaceX launches. Company officials have sketched out an aggressive timetable to launch as frequently as twice a month later this year.

Internal SpaceX documents project ramping up to weekly launches by 2019, though the company so far has never launched more than eight rockets in a single year.

Rebounding from two rocket explosions over 14 months, the company has carried out a pair of extensive investigations and completed its most recent return to flight a month ago. Starting with Sunday’s cargo outing, SpaceX aims to show commercial and U.S. government customers that it can be counted on to maintain operational reliability even as it dramatically increases launch rates to work through its bulging backlog of dozens of delayed missions.

But last week, the company delayed by eight weeks the next launch for its biggest commercial customer. Iridium Communications Inc. said the launch of the second batch of its next-generation satellites was postponed to mid-June from mid-April to adjust for previous slips in SpaceX’s overall launch manifest.

Also in 2017, SpaceX is slated to conduct the first flight of its long-delayed Falcon Heavy rocket, featuring 27 engines and designed to carry the biggest loads into orbit as well as execute missions deeper into space.

In addition to the symbolism of reopening a launch complex used decades ago during the heyday of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s manned lunar exploits and subsequently for the now-retired space shuttle fleet, the rebirth of pad 39A illustrates the economic rebound of Florida’s Space Coast. The resurgence in jobs is partly driven by investments in commercial space ventures.

SpaceX’s refurbishment of the pad leased from NASA, vacant for six years, is part of the region’s growing employment prospects as it transitions to a more-diverse aerospace economy.

But the latest success also coincides with continuing technical challenges confronting SpaceX and Boeing Co. as they push to separately develop commercial space taxis intended to start ferrying U.S. astronauts to the space station before the end of the decade. SpaceX’s crewed flights are slated to launch from pad 39A starting in 2018 or 2019.

Last week, as expected, the Government Accountability Office released a final version of a report highlighting why it projects escalating schedule pressures on both commercial-crew contractors. GAO investigators described “a variety of risks that could further delay certification” of rockets and manned capsules to transport crews to the station.

For Boeing, the report said top schedule and safety risks include having adequate data to verify that some rocket engines and re-entry parachutes would operate properly.

For SpaceX, the GAO said the biggest risks stem from “ongoing launch vehicle design and development efforts” that may leave the company without adequate time to certify hardware before its initial test flight. The report and an earlier draft also indicated that stretching back to 2015, and continuing as late as September, both NASA and SpaceX had concerns about persistent cracks detected in some vital propulsion-system components.

NASA program officials “informed SpaceX that the cracks are an unacceptable risk for human spaceflight,” according to the official report. The final document also said SpaceX told the GAO that company engineers were “working closely with NASA to eliminate these cracks,” and recently had made design changes that prevented cracking during “initial life testing” of what are called turbopumps that supply fuel to engines.

In its response to the report, William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s top manned exploration official, agreed with GAO recommendations calling on the agency to develop contingency plans to transport astronauts into orbit if Boeing and SpaceX miss their deadlines. The agency previously disclosed it was considering contracting for seats on Russian capsules that Boeing acquired as part of an unconnected legal dispute.

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