It looks like we’re going to have to wait a little longer for the historic first flight of a commercial vehicle to the International Space Station. The long-awaited launch of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule on its Falcon 9 rocket will likely be delayed from May 7 to at least May 10 to give the company’s engineers more time for preflight tests and systems checkouts.
On Tuesday, SpaceX founder Elon Musk discussed the results of Monday’s static engine fire test and the overall status of launch processing with senior NASA managers. Following the meeting, rumours began spreading from within NASA that the May 7 launch had been ruled out. This morning, SpaceX’s twitter account supported the suspicions tweeting “At this time a 5/7 launch is unlikely. We will issue a statement as soon as a new launch target is set.” SpaceX Director of Communications Kirstin Brost echoed the sentiment: “At this time, a May 7th launch appears unlikely. SpaceX is continuing to work through the software assurance process with NASA. We will issue a statement as soon as a new launch target is set.” The looming delay isn’t anything new for SpaceX. The original launch date for this mission was February 7 and its been pushed back many times since then. The next launch opportunity for the mission will be on May 10.
SpaceX only has one launch window every three days. This is due in part to the station’s orbit – as it orbits and the Earth rotates, the launch path to rendezvous with the station changes. But May 10 isn’t ideal since there is no backup opportunity associated with this launch date. If a launch on May 10 is scrubbed, for technical issues or weather delays, SpaceX’s next opportunity won’t be until May 19. A Soyuz TMA-04 is set to launch on May 14 and dock with the station on May 16 to deliver three fresh crew members. As long as Soyuz is docked, SpaceXs Dragon won’t have an opportunity to rendezvous with the station
The other problem with a May 10 launch is that it only gives SpaceX one shot to dock the Dragon capsule with the station. With the Soyuz missions on its heels, SpaceX wouldn’t be able to reset for another attempt at rendezvous if Dragon fails to dock on its first try.
This is a significant mission to SpaceX and one the company is unlikely to rush into without backup opportunities. The flight, if all goes well, will confirm the second and third objectives outlined in NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, COTS, which was designed to have private industry take over where the shuttle left off. The ultimate goal is for NASA to outsource low Earth orbital flights and focus its energies on bigger missions.
The COTS program is designed to have commercial companies demonstrate the validity of their designs in three stages. COTS 1 calls for the company to prove its hardware in a demonstration flight. COTS 2 has the company demonstrate the performance and control of its spacecraft in orbit by delicately navigating and moving around the ISS while staying outside its safe zone. COTS 3 has the spacecraft approach to within a few feet of the station. From there, astronauts will grapple the vehicle with the station’s robotic arms and pull it into the docking port.
After SpaceX successfully demonstrated its hardware in December 2010 – the COTS 1 flight – it was given the ‘go’ to combine its COTS 2 and COTS 3 goals into one flight. This is, of course, the missions that’s now facing delays.
NASA has not yet made any statement about the launch; as the flight is a commercial one, it is up to the company to make the formal announcement about any delays. SpaceX currently has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to launch 12 resupply missions to the ISS. A final decision about the launch is expected by the end of the week.Missions » ISS » COTS »