“She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid. I’ve made a lot of special modifications myself.” — Han Solo
If all goes according to plan, this weekend will mark the return to flight for two iconic Falcons, as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 returns to space for the first time in five months just days after the famous science-fiction spaceship for which it was named makes its debut on movie screens around the world for the first time in over thirty years.
And what’s more, when both ships break atmo, they’ll be doing so with some special upgrades…
When Star Wars Episode VII: the Force Awakens debuts, moviegoers will see a sleeker, more formidable looking version of the Millennium Falcon than the one that Luke Skywalker once called “a piece of junk.”
Footage from trailers and production stills that have been released in advance of the movie’s premiere seem to show the Falcon sporting more powerful-looking engines and, most notably, a radar dish that is more high-tech than the one that was shorn off in the attack on the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi. Given the reputation of the ship’s owner (and its previous owner, for that matter) and its history of “violence and crime,” we seriously doubt these are the only “special modifications” that the Falcon has undergone since she last took to the sky in a galaxy far, far away.
Unlike her sci-fi namesake, the newer model of the SpaceX Falcon 9 that is tentatively scheduled to launch on December 19 won’t look all that different to the untrained eye from the one that last went into the black on that ill-fated CRS-7 mission last June. But as a certain Corellian smuggler-turned-general would say, “She’s got it where it counts.” The men and women of SpaceX haven’t exactly been sitting around idle for the past five months during the company’s self-imposed launch hiatus, and when she breaks atmo this weekend the upgraded Falcon 9 will have the benefit of both increased thrust and increased fuel capacity. No, that won’t allow her to make the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs, but it will allow for a pretty spectacular conclusion to her OG2 mission (during which she’ll launch eleven small Orbcomm communications satellites) should SpaceX decide to attempt a vertical landing and recovery of the vehicle’s first-stage.
Because of the additional fuel required to attempt a vertical recovery, SpaceX was previously only able to attempt vertical landings of the Falcon 9’s first stage during missions that sent Dragon space capsules to the International Space Station, but with the upgrades that have been made to the latest incarnation of the Falcon 9, the rocket will have enough fuel on board to bring its first stage in for a vertical landing after any and all launches.
There is no word as of yet as to whether or not SpaceX will attempt a vertical landing this weekend, but if they do, there is some speculation that they may try to land the Falcon’s first stage at Cape Canaveral instead of on one of their drone-piloted barges in the Atlantic Ocean, as they had for all previous attempts. This would be consistent with SpaceX’s propensity for “going big,” and would definitely mark the Falcon 9’s “Return to Flight” in style.
Even without a vertical recovery, though, the timing of the Falcon’s return to flight is either a very fortuitous coincidence or another example of SpaceX’s ability to take advantage of any unique marketing opportunity. The Falcon is expected to launch between 8 and 9pm EST on Saturday, December 19, just days after the premiere of Star Wars Episode VII: the Force Awakens. It’s more than a safe bet that the new Star Wars film will be a force to be reckoned with at the box office, and the buzz generated by the movie will have the idea of visiting galaxies far, far away on the minds of many around the world this weekend, especially those young enough to believe that they might realistically be able to travel into space in their lifetime. It’s reasonable to assume that excitement generated by the movie might in turn create more excitement for the launch of the real-life Falcon, and for this reason we applaud SpaceX’s choice of launch window for Orbcomm-2. (It is, of course, also this very same concept that we’ve repeatedly cited as one of the reasons why we believe Serenity would be an ideal name for SpaceX’s first Crew Dragon.)
We here at Take Back the Sky wish the new-and-improved Falcon 9 a successful “Return to Flight.” May the Force be with you, SpaceX, and godspeed, Falcon.