SpaceX has a momentous launch this week
SpaceX will attempt to launch its 17th mission of 2017 on Tuesday, a cargo supply flight to the International Space Station. Liftoff is scheduled for 11:46am ET, and weather conditions are expected to be near perfect, with a 90 percent chance of go conditions.
This flight is notable for several reasons. Already this year SpaceX has re-flown one of its Falcon 9 rockets, and reused a Dragon spacecraft for a station supply mission. This mission will combine both, marking the first time SpaceX has used a "flight proven" booster for a NASA launch and combined it with a used Dragon spacecraft. This booster first flew in July (also on an ISS cargo mission), and the spacecraft first flew to the station in 2015.
The launch attempt also marks a return to an old launch pad for the California-based company. When a Falcon 9 and its satellite payload blew up in September, 2016, the explosion did significant damage to Space Launch Complex 40 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The launch pad has been out of service since then.
However, after the accident investigation closed in February, SpaceX has not only repaired the 60-year-old pad, it has made significant improvements, said John Muratore, director of the launch complex. During a conference call with reporters on Friday, Muratore said a large part of the work involved efforts to harden infrastructure at the pad for rapid rocket reuse in the future. The company does not have immediate plans to do so, but the new pad could support a launch cadence as high as one mission per week. "We've put in a lot of provisions to protect the equipment," he said.
Three launch pads
For example, the heat and fire from launches had been causing significant erosion of concrete lining the flame trench. The company has augmented the water system, Muratore said, which should make the facility more durable for both static firings and launches. Additionally, much of the support equipment for launches has been moved underground.
Muratore said he believes SpaceX is the first company to bring three launch pads online in a single year. As a result, the company has some flexibility and can now launch from Space Launch Complex-40, as well as Launch Complex-39A in Florida and SLC-4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Moving forward, SLC-40 will launch Falcon 9 missions, with a focus on increasing flight rates for commercial customers with reused boosters. The company's forthcoming Falcon Heavy rocket, as well as commercial crew and cargo Dragon spacecraft will fly from the nearby Launch Complex-39A. The company also has the Vandenberg facility for reaching polar orbits.
Tuesday's launch attempt will likely be SpaceX's last flight from Florida in 2017. It has one additional launch of Iridium satellites scheduled from California, in late December. The secretive Zuma mission, delayed from November, now is planned for early January from Florida.