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SpaceX Falcon 9 Returns to Duty, Delivers Satellites, Lands Safely

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Dec-2015 (Updated: 21-Dec-2015 11:26 PM)

SpaceX achieved three significant objectives tonight:  the return to flight of its Falcon 9 rocket, the successful delivery of 11 ORBCOMM OG-2 communications satellites to orbit, and a historic landing of the rocket's first stage back to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), FL.  SpaceX is not the first to return a rocket or spacecraft to land on Earth, but it is the first private company to conduct a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) of a rocket on an orbital (rather than suborbital) trajectory successfully.

This was the first flight of a Falcon 9 since a June 28, 2015 failure.   The rocket launched today is an upgraded version with a number of improvements, including the use of supercooled liquid oxygen that provides additional thrust.

The first launch of any rocket following a failure is an exciting event in the space community, but SpaceX reached for a higher level by deciding to attempt to land the rocket's first stage back at CCAFS on this flight, too.   The company has tested landing several times, including twice on an autonomous drone ship at sea. Those tests were unsuccessful, but the second time was close.  

Tonight, they landed on terra firma just a few miles down the coast from where the rocket had launched just 10 minutes earlier.  SpaceX East Coast launches take place from Launch Complex 40 (LC-40) at CCAFS, which is adjacent to NASA's Kennedy Space Center.  SpaceX has converted a different Launch Complex, LC-13, into its  "Landing Zone 1."  That is where the first stage landed this evening.  The Air Force Space & Missile Museum has a map showing where all the CCAFS launch pads are located.

SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage lands at Landing Zone 1, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, December 21, 2015.
Image clipped from SpaceX webcast.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk later tweeted a composite "there and back again" photo:

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket composite "there and back again" photo tweeted by @elonmusk, December 21, 2015

The landing test is part of Musk's drive to create a reusable rocket.  He believes reusability will lower costs.  That was one of the goals of NASA's space shuttle program, but over its 30 years of operation (1981-2011), its costs remained very high.  There are at least three methods for calculating launch costs -- marginal cost, average cost, or full cost -- so varying figures are used for the cost of a shuttle launch, but the program was funded at $3-4 billion a year for between one and four flights in the final years, so $1 billion per launch is a commonly used figure.

The technical challenges of returning a vehicle to Earth are one hurdle, but the economic challenges may be even greater.   Many analysts conclude that a high launch rate is needed to make a reusable system economical.  A high launch rate allows fixed costs to be amortized over a large base.

Tonight's test was of the technology and it proved out.  Whether a reusable Falcon 9 is economical remains to be seen.

The Falcon 9 is not the first rocket to land safely back on Earth.   Last month, for example, Blue Origin, owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos who also believes in reusablity, launched and landed a New Shepard suborbital rocket.  That feat received considerable publicity, although Blue Origin did not reveal the test had taken place until the next day -- after it knew the test was a success.

Bezos tweeted congratulations to SpaceX tonight, but with a reminder that his rocket did it first.

Musk and others pointed out at the time that as impressive as the Blue Origin achievement was, the challenges are greater with a rocket traveling on an orbital trajectory.

Space aficionados can debate what vehicle deserves the honor of being known as the first reusable rocket -- the X-15, DC-X and SpaceShipOne are candidates -- but NASA's space shuttle was the only operational reusable launch vehicle.

Excitement over the landing almost overshadowed what is perhaps the more important near-term achievement of getting the Falcon 9 back in business.  The company has a long backlog of government and commercial customers waiting their turns.  Three more Falcon 9 rockets are scheduled for launch in the next two months, including a cargo mission to the International Space Station for NASA.  The June 28 failure destroyed a Dragon capsule full of ISS supplies.  NASA is anxious to get the next Dragon to ISS and launch is currently scheduled for sometime in February.  Before that, SpaceX has launches of a commercial communications satellite for SES (SES-9) and a NOAA/Eumetsat/NASA/CNES ocean altimetry satellite (Jason-3) on its schedule. Jason-3 will be launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA; the others are from CCAFS.

SpaceX not only is one of two competitors that launch commercial cargo missions to the ISS for NASA (Orbital ATK is the other), but was chosen by NASA to be one of two companies to build commercial crew vehicles to take crews back and forth as well (Boeing is the other).   In the just-passed FY2016 omnibus appropriations bill, Congress provided NASA with the full $1.244 billion requested to support the commercial crew program with a goal of the first crew launches in 2017.  Those SpaceX launches also will use Falcon 9 rockets.


What's Happening in Space Policy December 21-31, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Dec-2015 (Updated: 21-Dec-2015 05:40 AM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the next TWO weeks, December 21-31, 2015.  Congress has finished its work for the year and is in recess.

During the Weeks

Congress passed and the President signed into law the FY2016 appropriations on Friday, completing congressional action for this year.

That doesn't mean a break for space program aficionados, though.  Two big events are on tap tomorrow (Monday) -- an unexpected spacewalk at the International Space Station (ISS) and the return-to-flight of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and a historical attempt to land the first stage back at Cape Canaveral.

The spacewalk is needed because the ISS Mobile Transporter, used to position the robotic Canadarm2 for various tasks, got stuck on December 16 when ground controllers were moving it from one location to another.  It has to be in the correct location and locked into place before Russia's Progress cargo craft docks on Wednesday.  

This is a new version of Progress, too -- Progress MS.  NASA refers to it as Progress 62 because it is the 62nd Progress to resupply the ISS, but Progress cargo ships have been launched since 1977 and has been through several upgrades; this is the latest.  Launch is scheduled for 3:44 am Eastern Standard Time (2:44 pm local time at the launch site in Kazakhstan) Monday, with docking on Wednesday at 5:31 am EST.

Meanwhile, SpaceX has postponed from today until tomorrow the return-to-flight launch of Falcon 9.   Elon Musk and the customer, ORBCOMM, offered differing explanations for the delay, but in any case it is now scheduled for 8:33 pm EST.  SpaceX said it will webcast the launch, but perhaps of even more interest will be the company's attempt to land the first stage back at Cape Canaveral.  It is not clear if that also will be webcast.

Those are the only events we know about for the rest of 2015 as of today (Sunday), but if we learn about any others (or delays in these), we will add them to our Events of interest, so check back during the week.

Monday, December 21

UPDATE, December 21, 5:30 am EST  An earlier version of this article referred to the new Russian Progress as MS-01, but the Russians refer to it only as Progress-MS.  It was successfully launched this morning (Monday) at 3:44 am EST (the earlier version of this post mistakenly said launch would be at 3:34,; the correct time is 3:44. )

NASA Will Proceed with Unexpected Spacewalk on Monday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Dec-2015 (Updated: 20-Dec-2015 05:04 PM)

NASA's International Space Station (ISS) Mission Management Team decided today to proceed with an unexpected spacewalk tomorrow (Monday).  It will begin at 8:10 am ET.

NASA astronauts Scott Kelly and Tim Kopra need to fix the Mobile Transporter (MT) on the outside of the ISS, which became stuck on December 16 when ground controllers were trying to move it from one location to another.  The MT must be in its correct position and latched into place before a Russian Progress cargo spacecraft docks with the ISS on Wednesday (it is scheduled for launch tomorrow).

 NASA said today the spacewalk will begin at 8:10 am ET and last about three hours, but the start time is variable because Kopra will be conducting a fit-check of his spacesuit.  He arrived on ISS only four days ago, though he has flown in space before and conducted a spacewalk.  Kelly has been on ISS since March; this will be his third spacewalk.

The spacewalk will be broadcast on NASA TV.

SpaceX Postpones Falcon 9 Launch/Landing to Monday

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Dec-2015 (Updated: 20-Dec-2015 04:36 PM)

SpaceX has decided to postpone one day, until Monday, its Falcon 9 return-to-flight launch of 11 ORBCOMM OG2 communications satellites and its historic attempt to land the rocket's first stage back at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  The new launch time is 8:33 pm ET.

Musk tweeted late this afternoon that the decision to wait until Monday was to improve the chances of a successful landing, but ORBCOMM issued a press release attributing the delay to a desire to take more time to chill the supercooled liquid oxygen.

By contrast, ORBCOMM, the customer for the launch said: "SpaceX has determined that an additional day prior to launch will allow for more analysis and time to further chill the liquid oxygen in preparation for launch. Please note that we will now be targeting launch for tomorrow, Monday, December 21 at 8:34 pm ET."  (The company later corrected the launch time to 8:33 pm ET.)

The primary purpose of the launch, of course, it to meet the customer's requirements of placing 11 satellites into low Earth orbit.  Landing is a secondary objective for SpaceX's own goal of demonstrating reusability, which makes the decision somewhat surprising.

SpaceX will webcast the launch, but has not specifically stated that it will do so for the landing.

SpaceX Plans Launch, Landing on Sunday - UPDATED

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Dec-2015 (Updated: 19-Dec-2015 05:41 PM)

SpaceX will not only attempt its return-to-flight launch of Falcon 9 tomorrow night (Sunday), but to return its first stage to a landing back at Cape Canaveral, FL.  This will be the first Falcon 9 launch since a failure on June 28 and the first attempt to land the first stage on land rather than at sea. [Updated with webcast information.]

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted yesterday that a static fire test was successful and launch would take place on Sunday pending final review of the test data.   Today, he tweeted that the launch would indeed be conducted Sunday as well as the landing.

The Falcon 9 will launch 11 ORBCOMM OG2 satellites to low Earth orbit. ORBCOMM tweeted today that the launch will take place "no earlier than" 8:29 pm Eastern Standard Time (EST).

SpaceX announced Saturday evening that it will livestream the launch beginning at 8:00 pm ET. 

SpaceX is planning four launches in the next two months.

Musk wants to make the Falcon 9 first stage reusable and has conducted several tests where the first stage returned to Earth after sending the payload on its way to space.  Initially, the first stage would hover briefly over the ocean and then fall over into the water.  Later, SpaceX attempted to land it on an unoccupied autonomous drone ship (which many refer to as a barge, but it has an engine and barges do not).   The two attempts failed, but the second time it almost succeeded.  

The goal, however, is to land it on land so it can be quickly turned around and readied for the next launch.  SpaceX has been trying to get the necessary approvals from the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, which facilitates and regulates the commercial space launch industry, and the Air Force, which owns the pads at CCAFS where the launch and landing will take place.   Musk's tweet suggests the approvals have been granted.

The weather forecast for a launch tomorrow is 90% favorable.

Blue Origin, a company owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos, is developing a suborbital rocket, New Shepard.  It successfully launched and landed one of those rockets at its West Texas facility last month.   The achievement generated considerable media attention, but some observers, including Musk, pointed out that returning a rocket from orbital velocities is dramatically more difficult than from a suborbital launch.


Stuck Mobile Transporter Necessitates Unplanned ISS Spacewalk

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Dec-2015 (Updated: 18-Dec-2015 11:57 PM)

Two NASA astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) will make an unplanned spacewalk as early as Monday to fix the space station's mobile transporter, which got stuck on December 16.  It must be moved before the next Russian Progress cargo spacecraft can dock at the ISS, which is scheduled for Wednesday.

Scott Kelly and Tim Kopra will try to repair the mobile transporter, which moves along the outside of the ISS to position the robotic Canadarm2 for various tasks, put it in its correct location and latch it into place.   Ground controllers were attempting to do that, but it got stuck 4 inches from where it began its move.

NASA is targeting Monday for the spacewalk, but will not make a final readiness decision until Sunday.

Russia's Progress cargo spacecraft is scheduled for launch at 3:44 am Eastern Standard Time (EST) on Monday and docking with the ISS at 5:31 am EST on Wednesday.  NASA and Roscosmos are anxious to get the cargo spacecraft docked before a "beta angle cutout" from December 24 to January 2 when the Sun's angle relative to the ISS does not provide proper lighting conditions for either spacewalks or dockings.

A time for the spacewalk has not been determined yet, but it will be broadcast on NASA TV when it occurs.

Kelly has been aboard the ISS since March.  He and Russian cosmonaut Mikahil Kornienko are more than half-way through their "year in space" mission.  Kopra just arrived at the iSS three days ago, but he has flown in space before.  This will be Kelly's third and Kopra's second spacewalks.

FY2016 Omnibus Appropriations Bill Clears Congress, Signed by President

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Dec-2015 (Updated: 18-Dec-2015 11:35 PM)

The House and Senate passed the final version of the FY2016 appropriations bill today and it was quickly signed into law by President Obama.  Government agencies are now funded through the end of FY2016 -- September 30, 2016.

The final bill, H.R. 2029, brought mostly good news to government civilian space programs at NASA, NOAA and the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST).

NASA gets a $756 million boost above the President's request, which itself was a $519 million increase over the agency's FY2015 funding.  Its top-line funding for FY2016 is $19.285 billion compared to $18.010 billion in FY2015.  Details are in our NASA budget fact sheet.  In a big win for the Obama Administration, Congress provided the full $1.244 billion requested for the commercial crew program.   At the same time, it added significant funds for the Space Launch System and a robotic mission to Jupiter's moon Europa, two congressional priorities.

NOAA's satellite programs were fully funded with two small exceptions ($10 million requested for an Earth Observing Nanosatellite-Microwave program was denied, and $1.2 million was provided instead of $2.5 million for beginning to plan for a space weather satellite follow-on to DSCOVR).  But the GOES-R and JPSS weather satellite programs are fully funded, along with the Polar Follow On (PFO) program for two more JPSS spacecraft (JPSS-3 and -4).  Getting full funding for PFO is a big win for the Obama Administration; Congress was lukewarm, at best, about it.  Congress also created a Commercial Weather Data Pilot program, one of its priorities, and funded it at $3 million for FY2016. Details are in our NOAA budget fact sheet.

FAA/AST did not get the full $1.5 million increase it requested, but it got more than the House-passed or Senate Appropriations Committee-recommended levels.  It will get $17.8 million for FY2016, compared to $16.605 million in FY2015, an increase of $1.2 million. 

Perhaps the most controversial issue in the DOD space program was not funding, but the policy issue of how many Russian RD-180 engines may by obtained by the United Launch Alliance for its Atlas V rocket.  The Atlas V is used to launch national security satellites and the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act  (NDAA) sharply limits the number of Russian engines that ULA may use because its focus is building an American-made alternative.  The appropriations bill, however, essentially lifts those limits.  Senator John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the architect of the RD-180 limits, lambasted his appropriations colleagues for undermining the provisions of the NDAA.

SpaceX Aiming for Sunday Return to Flight After Successful Static Fire Test

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Dec-2015 (Updated: 18-Dec-2015 10:55 PM)

SpaceX is now aiming at a Sunday launch of its Falcon 9 rocket following a successful static fire test today.   The test took place two days later than planned and the data are still being reviewed, but SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk sounded hopeful in a tweet this evening.

The Falcon 9 rocket will launch 11 ORBCOMM communications satellites to low Earth orbit (LEO).  It is the first flight of Falcon 9 since a launch failure on June 28, 2015 that destroyed a Dragon capsule full of supplies for the International Space Station.  SpaceX chose this ORBCOMM launch for its return-to-flight mission because it does not require a second firing of the rocket's upper stage.  It was the upper stage that failed on June 28.

The company has made a number of upgrades to the Falcon 9, including supercooling the liquid oxygen, which apparently created challenges and led to the two-day delay in the static fire test.   Musk said in a tweet at 7:09  pm Eastern Standard Time tonight that the data looked good and the launch will take place on Sunday pending further review of the test data.


The test did not take place without problems.  Musk tweeted earlier in the day that an abort was triggered "due to slow ground side valve." The timing margin was adjusted and the test was successful the second time.

The 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base, FL, says there is a 90% chance of favorable weather for a Sunday launch.  If it does not go on Sunday, the next opportunity will be Tuesday, when the weather forecast is 60% "go"

ORBCOMM said earlier that the launch would take place "about" three days after the successful static fire test between 8:00 and 9:00  pm EST.

If all goes well, this is the first of four Falcon 9 launches scheduled for the next two months, including the next cargo mission to the ISS in February.

Updated NASA and NOAA Fact Sheets Available

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Dec-2015 (Updated: 17-Dec-2015 10:32 PM)'s fact sheets on the FY2016 budget requests for NASA and NOAA's satellite programs have been updated to reflect the latest congressional action on the proposed final omnibus appropriations bill.

Passage of the omnibus appropriations bill (H.R. 2029) is expected, but not assured, in the next few days.  The current Continuing Resolution (CR) that is funding the government (P.L. 114-100) expires on Tuesday, December 22, but Congress can pass as many extensions of the CR as it wishes, for short- or long-terms.

The two SpacePolicyOnline fact sheets are available by clicking on these links or by going to "Our Fact Sheets and Reports" on the left menu of our home page:

Our 114th Congress Legislative Checklist is also up to date.

Congress Passes Another CR as Votes Await on Full Year Omnibus Bill - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Dec-2015 (Updated: 17-Dec-2015 10:14 PM)

The House and Senate quickly passed another short-term Continuing Resolution (CR) today to keep the government operating until Tuesday, December 22.   The goal is to pass the full-year omnibus appropriations that negotiators agreed upon overnight before the new deadline passes.  [UPDATE: The President signed the CR on December 16, P.L. 114-100.]

As reported in four articles today, negotiators agreed on a bill that combines all 12 regular FY2016 appropriations bills into a single "omnibus" bill to fund the government through September 30, 2016. 

The omnibus bill, H.R. 2029, still must pass the House and Senate and be signed into law by the President.  The $1.149 trillion funding bill meets the requirements of the budget/debt limit deal reached by Congress and the White House at the end of October, but remains controversial.  As House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said, "in divided government, no one gets exactly what they want."  Republican and Democratic leaders apparently believe they have enough votes to get the measure passed, however.

The CR currently keeping the government operating expires today, necessitating another short-term CR until the omnibus becomes law.

Events of Interest


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