It’s been a week of ups and downs this last week for SpaceX. Since Friday, SpaceX have been trying their darndest to get a Falcon 9 launched out of Florida, but still haven’t launched as of this writing. At the same time, one of their tests of the Falcon 9 Reusable (F9R) in the paradise of McGregor, Texas, went swimmingly.
Slip and Scrub, Rinse and repeat
First, some history about the launch that’s been going on forever. Initially, SpaceX was supposed to launch the Falcon 9 in late April. A non-related, but late-running Cargo Resupply Services (CRS) mission forced the scheduled launch to then potentially happen on May 10, 2014, starting the whole SpaceX domino delay dilemma. But on May 8th, SpaceX had some issues with Space Launch Complex 40’s (SLC–40-the rocket’s assigned launchpad) umbilical connections to SpaceX’s rocket. This may have prevented a mandatory static-firing test of the rocket.
The static firing of a rocket engine is a test that shows whether the rocket engine turns on and off when commanded. Without that data, there’s more uncertainty regarding the rocket engine’s reliability and response to control. The test was attempted again on May 9th, but was aborted because some quality control issues, a “helium leak in the rocket’s first-stage pressurization system.”
By May 19th, a new launch date was projected: June 11th. Ten days later, on May 29th, the launch date was pushed back to June 13th. On June 10th, one of the rocket’s six payloads, an ORBCOMM satellite, had some problems, too, so June 16th became the new launch date.
ORBCOMM is working with SpaceX to get a new constellation of six communications satellites into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The satellites would help to provide communications coverage on the Earth in areas that geostationary (GEO) satellites have issues with, such as anyplace above 70 degrees north latitude and 70 degrees south latitude. The satellites can also help with tracking surface ships that are equipped with a special radio “beacons.”
By June 13th, then, everyone involved knew a new launch date would be needed. On June 15th, SpaceX was given June 20th as a good launch date. On launch day, June 20th, the launch was scrubbed because there were pressure problems with the Falcon 9’s second stage. June 21st, a designated backup day, became the new launch day. But the June 21st launch was scrubbed because the weather hadn’t cooperated. So on to Sunday, June 22nd.
This launch was scrubbed, too, because of unspecified concerns with pre-flight checkout (a series of checks conducted, step-by-step, of the rocket before lift-off). While there’s no confirmation, a CBS news article suggests the scrub was caused by concerns about the Falcon 9’s engine nozzle system, which moves the rocket engine’s nozzle to steer the rocket. Again, that’s an unconfirmed source, since SpaceX itself isn’t committing to that answer. So the SpaceX/ORBCOMM roller coaster ride still hasn’t come to a complete stop.
Reuse and recycle–it’s in the fins
But, SpaceX has not been standing still with its rocket reusability tests while wrangling the Falcon 9 launch. It’s been testing with a F9R, and on the 17th of June, 2014, the company continued its tests with the F9R, but with a twist: they put moving, controlled fins on the rocket. The fins are used to steer the rocket during the “fly back” part of a SpaceX rocket. You can watch the video below to get an idea.
It looks like the test worked. The rocket flew up to 1000 meters (or 1 kilometer), the flew back down, while being steered with those weird “wiffle-paddles” mounted on the rocket’s sides. It also looks like the test scared the crap out of the herd of cows grazing nearby. There were probably other smells in the air than burnt propellant.
But, the fins are just testing whether the idea can work for SpaceX–and it looks like it can. The next step is to get the actual rocket legs on the F9R. Those rocket legs are supposed to act exactly like the fins. There’s more to read about the significance of these fins on this site, in “On a Roll: One Small Step for Reusable Rockets.” You can see the differences between the fins and the legs in the pictures below.
So these are the ups and downs for SpaceX. Some bad luck with launch delays, but good luck with reusable rocket tests. I understand that SpaceX is still learning about launch, but it seems to be an expensive way to do it. I don’t know how they’ll be able to keep launch costs down–after all, more time and people involved in a launch means more money spent. But the successful test of the F9R shows the promise of what SpaceX might do. Both are what make this industry interesting to watch.