After years of iterating designs on the drawing board, hard work on the factory floor, and combating the naysayers and haters, the Crew Dragon, the first private orbital spacecraft (Virgin Galactic’s bird is a suborbital craft, and yes, the Orion also had an unmanned test flight as the first government-commissioned craft since the space shuttle) will launch from Kennedy Space Center in the United States in the early morning hours of Saturday, the 2nd of March. Continue Reading
If we didn’t know better, we’d think SpaceX is celebrating Hanukkah in grand style. After all, it seems like they’re lighting a very big candle every day now!
With today’s launch of the SSO-A SmallSat Express, which was originally scheduled to launch from Vandenberg AFB in California on November 19, SpaceX is now on the verge of back-to-back launches on two consecutive days from two opposite coasts. That’s because the 16th resupply mission to the International Space Station as part of the Commercial Resupply Services contract that SpaceX has with NASA is scheduled to lift off from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday, December 4 at 1:38 PM EST (18:38 UTC).
At this time the weather appears to be favorable for the mission, which will have an instantaneous launch window. The Falcon 9 booster that will be used for this mission is a brand new Block 5 rocket. Its first stage will land at Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) at Cape Canaveral.
The Falcon 9 will carry a Dragon spacecraft loaded with 5,673 lbs. (2,573 kg) of supplies, scientific research equipment, experimental hardware and scientific investigations (a.k.a. experiments) that will aid the crews of Expeditions 57 and 58 in their work aboard the ISS. The timing of the launch is especially interesting since the Expedition 58 crew also launched earlier today aboard a Soyuz rocket. If all goes well, they will be aboard the ISS in time to assist the crew of Expedition 57 with the capture and unloading of the Dragon when it arrives at the station on December 6. Operating the Canadarm2 to grapple the Dragon and guide it to the station will be Expedition 57 Commander Alexander Gerst of Germany, who will surely feel like he’s receiving the biggest St. Nikolaus’ Day gift ever!
The Dragon is expected to remain berthed at the ISS for approximately five weeks. After the crew unpacks its current cargo and loads it full of completed experiments and other materials that are to be sent back to Earth, it will undock (if everything remains on schedule) on January 13, 2019, at which time it will return to Earth and splash down for recovery in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja, California.
Peace, love and rockets…
SpaceX’s next launch is slated for Thursday, November 15 at 3:46 PM EST from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, when a Falcon 9 will send the Es’hail-2 communications satellite into geostationary orbit.
According to the Kennedy Space Center website, the satellite is designed to assist with broadband connectivity and broadcast capability for Qatar and its neighbors, but it will also boost the signal of ham radio operators from Brazil to Thailand. The satellite is owned by Qatar’s national satellite communications company, Es’hailSat, but was built in Japan by Mitsubishi Electric Corporation.
Thursday’s launch, SpaceX’s 18th of the year, will be the 63rd flight of a Falcon 9 rocket to date. The Falcon 9 that will launch Es’hail-2 is a previously-flown booster that was last used for the July 22 launch of the Telstar 19 VANTAGE communications satellite.
SpaceX is expected to attempt to recover the first stage of the Falcon 9 aboard the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You a few hundred miles off the Florida coast in the Atlantic Ocean.
The Es’hail-2 mission will also be the first time in several months that SpaceX has launched a Falcon 9 during the day, so those on the East Coast who want to view the launch won’t have to stay up late to do it this time around. A live webcast of the launch should begin approximately 20 minutes before liftoff at spacex.com and on the company’s YouTube channel.
Peace, love and rockets…
This is the second half of Jeff’s two-part coverage of the NASA SOCIAL press event for the ICON atmospheric probe. As a disclosure, Jeff is employed by the Lockheed-Martin corporation, the original makers of the L-1011 Stargazer aircraft now operated by Northrop-Grumman mentioned in this article, though his employment is completely unrelated to said craft.
After the unexpectedly cathartic visit to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and a lunch break, we were shuttled to the NASA press facilities overlooking the launch complexes.
Left: Approaching the NASA Press Briefing Room and television studio. Right: The view from the building of one of the former space shuttle launch pads.
We took our seats, and finally got down to business for the real reason we were here. We were addressed and were free to ask questions of:
- Tim Dunn, Director of NASA’s Launch Services Program (left, in the blue shirt), who has the responsibility of selecting commercially available rockets like the Pegasus that are best suited to take given payloads into space.
- Brian Baldwin, representing Northrop-Grumman, who briefed us on the current situation with the payload. Originally meant to launch from Kwajalein Atoll last year, the most recent delay that precluded us from seeing it go today was some “fishy” readings from the satellite’s own telemetry sensors collected during the ferry flight to Kennedy. It was decided to try again the next week after having another look at it (“working three separate issues, that’s all I can say,” he said) to make sure nothing was damaged in transit.
They also gave us an idea of the unique challenge involved with the launch. The Pegasus XL is a rocket that is actually dropped from high altitude by a heavily modified Lockheed L1011 (christened Stargazer) before igniting the engines and arching upwards towards space to deploy its payload in a lower orbit. In order for the launch to succeed, Stargazer’s crew must drop the vehicle in a “drop box” measuring only 10 by 40 km — a narrow window to hit at cruising speeds.
Once it makes it out into the Black, just what does ICON do? The Ionospheric Connection Explorer uses a series of instruments to study the interaction between Earth’s high-altitude weather systems and “space weather” phenomena in the ionosphere — which has a profound impact on the performance of satellites and spacecraft, and may well be the difference in just how many bars or “G’s” your smartphone’s network enjoys. After a one-week “shakedown” in orbit, it’ll start powering up sensors built by UT Dallas, UC Berkeley, and the US Naval Research Laboratory, calibrating itself using the light of three full moons. Following that, it’ll commence it’s two-year mission to advance our understanding of space weather.
After the briefing, our next stop, if you’ll believe it, was mission control — not the same one that’s used for crewed missions, mind you, but still the actual command and control stations used by NASA and partners for commercial launches, be it underslung Pegasus launches, or SpaceX Crew Resupply Services (CRS) launches aboard Falcon 9’s.
These particular control rooms are within the Cape Canaveral United States Air Force Base, where photography is restricted, though we were assured that we were in the clear for the interior of the building.
Oddly enough, the control rooms used by the actual engineers, while lacking in decor, enjoy better workstations than management, with multiple curved-display monitors. “Just don’t tell our bosses,” said our guide.
After that was the main event, when they bused us out to the “skid strip” to see Stargazer itself on the runway with ICON loaded in the Pegasus XL on the underside. Unfortunately, as it is a restricted Air Force Base, we weren’t allowed to take any photos, so I’m afraid all I can give you here is stock photos from Google as I try my best to describe the tour of the craft.
For a plane sitting on the runway, it had a lot of activity buzzing around it — though I suppose a live solid-fuel rocket isn’t something one can just set aside and neglect. Much like the photo above of a previous mission, air conditioning trucks and generators must continually pipe in a steady flow of cool nitrogen gas into the payload compartment of the Pegasus in order to maintain the original, clean-room sterility of the spacecraft.
The plane itself, the L-1011, is largely unknown to the public, because in its day, it lost out to its competitor, a modest aircraft you may have heard of called the 747. This particular one was purchased from a Canadian airline that was retiring it (“for less than a Tesla,” they kept saying, though they declined to comment on just which model they meant). There’re only a few remaining in the world, and even fewer pilots qualified to fly it — which may be why Stargazer’s part-time flight crew were some of the coolest customers I’d met at the Cape. Gregarious as your favorite uncle, and just as comfortable in their blue flight suits as Jimmy Buffett in a Hawaiian shirt.
The plane requires a crew of three, as it was one of the last modern airplanes to require a flight engineer instead of having a fully automated system as the 747 did (no doubt part of why one is still with us and the other nearly extinct). Each of the three men took groups of us through their ship, starting at the cockpit — where yours truly assumed the captain’s seat, because of course, and placed my hand on the Big Red Button because that’s what you do if you have a pulse.
Behind the flight cabin were the instrument stations where workers were performing maintenance on workstations that would monitor and relay the Pegasus’ telemetry among the few rows of remaining seats. Most of the seats, insulation, and even toilets were torn out of the craft during its modification to reduce its weight and free up greater capacity for the payload that was attached beneath our feet — it turns out that the L-1011 wasn’t selected just because it was cheap, but because it sports a very unique airframe structure unlike any other passenger jetliner, and was the only in existence that had a strong enough underside to carry a rocket.
After shaking hands and saying our goodbyes, it was time to get back on the bus and return to our cars and normal, boring lives. It gave me time to reflect as I watched the palm trees and occasional bald eagle nests pass by. After 2011, I’d grown accustomed to “the new normal,” and come to accept that NASA and the Cape may never know its former glory again, with the exception of a few bright, rising stars such as SpaceX and Blue Origin. I couldn’t be more happy to be proven wrong, and to have my “faith” in it all restored, if you will. Heck, it gets me thinking that there may yet be hope that I’ll get to live the dream and work out here someday.
Very, very special thanks to @NASASOCIAL for inviting us to this press event.
Take Back the Sky’s own Jeff Cunningham was recently invited to a NASA press event centered around the launch of the Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) spacecraft aboard an air-launched Pegasus XL rocket. In this series of posts, he’ll share his behind-the-scenes tour of NASA’s latest and greatest projects going on at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Continue Reading
On May 10, SpaceX is scheduled to launch the Bangabandhu-1 satellite to geostationary transfer orbit from Launch Complex 39-A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Bangabandhu-1 will be Bangladesh’s first geostationary communications satellite. Its name means “friend of Bengal,” and it is named in honor of the founding father of the nation of Bangladesh. It is designed to provide communications services to Bangladesh and surrounding countries for at least the next 15 years.
The Falcon 9 that will carry Bangabandhu-1 into the black is scheduled to liftoff at 16:12 EST (20:12 UTC) on Thursday. The mission will also feature a landing of the Falcon 9’s first stage at sea aboard the SpaceX drone barge Of Course I Still Love You.
The highlight of the mission, however, will be the debut of the new “Block 5” variant of the Falcon 9. The Block 5 features a number of design upgrades that are intended to improve the rocket’s efficiency and safety, while allowing SpaceX to refly each first stage booster as many as ten times or more. (None of the previous Falcon 9 boosters have broken atmo more than twice.)
SpaceX has indicated that the Block 5 will be the final variant of their workhorse Falcon 9. The company will now concentrate on the development of its BFR, or “Big Falcon Rocket,” as well as the production of the Falcon Heavy (the rocket that we hope will soon carry US astronauts to the International Space Station aboard a Crew Dragon named Serenity), while its Block 5 fleet of Falcon 9 rockets handles SpaceX’s ambitious manifest of scheduled commercial satellite launches.
Those who want to see the new Falcon 9 Block 5 in action can watch Thursday’s launch online. As is usually the case, SpaceX’s live coverage of the launch will begin on spacex.com and the company’s YouTube channel approximately 20 minutes prior to liftoff.
Peace, love and rockets…
After an impressive slate of achievements and historic firsts in 2017, SpaceX will kick off the new year with the launch of its still top-secret Zuma mission on January 5, 2018. The clandestine government payload, which was to have launched on board a Falcon 9 November 15 of last year, was delayed due to a payload fairing issue. That issue now appears to have been resolved, and a Falcon 9 is scheduled to take Zuma into the black this Friday, with a two-hour launch window opening at 8:00 PM EST. At this time the weather is 90% GO for launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) in Florida.
Not much more has been revealed about this mission or its payload since we first previewed it back in November of 2017. While it may seem unusual for anything that an Elon Musk-owned company does to have so little fanfare, it’s doubtful that we’ll have to get used to it.
SpaceX is set to have a spectacular 2018, starting with the planned maiden launch of the Falcon Heavy, which could happen as early as late January. The Falcon Heavy already caused quite a stir on social media when it briefly went vertical for fit checks at LC-39A at Kennedy Space Center at the end of last month, and Musk’s claim that its first payload would be his own Tesla Roadster has only added to the hype surrounding what will be the most powerful operational rocket in the world. We’ll be discussing the Falcon Heavy and its inaugural launch in more detail in the near future.
But the SpaceX milestone that we’re most anticipating in 2018 is the launch of the very first Crew Dragon, which will finally take US astronauts back out to the black from American soil for the first time in seven years. That launch should happen sometime late this summer or early in the fall, and when it does, we hope that the capsule will be named Serenity, after the Firefly-class transport ship in Joss Whedon’s TV series Firefly and its follow-up motion picture Serenity.
2018 marks our sixth year of lobbying SpaceX to name its first Crew Dragon Serenity, and if you’re a Browncoat (or if you just agree that it would be a good name), you can still help us bring our efforts to fruition. All you really need to do is write a brief letter to SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, along with company president Gwynne Shotwell, urging them to christen SpaceX’s first manned spaceship with that name.
In the meantime, you should be able to watch a live webcast of the Zuma launch at spacex.com and on SpaceX’s YouTube channel on January 5. Coverage should begin approximately 20-30 minutes before liftoff.
On behalf of everyone here at Take Back the Sky, may your New Year be filled with peace, happiness, prosperity, and of course Serenity!
Peace, love and rockets…