SpaceX President on Falcon-9 OG2 Delays and Webcast Concerns, Company Aiming for July 14/15 Launch Attempt

Image Credits: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace / SpaceX

SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell and the Falcon-9 v1.1 rocket tasked with delivering the OG2 payload to orbit for customer ORBCOMM. Image Credits: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace / SpaceX

Last weekend Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) made three attempts to launch six next-generation telecommunications satellites (mission OG2) for customer ORBCOMM, but two technical issues and an uncooperative Mother Nature combined to keep the company’s Falcon-9 v1.1 rocket grounded at Space Launch Complex-40, and it will stay grounded for the time being (more on that later). Not only that, but a dramatic outcry from both the media and general public added insult to injury after the company announced they would not provide updates or a streaming webcast of the second launch attempt, and earlier this week SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell sat down with the John Batchelor Show to shed some light on a frustratingly long weekend at the Cape Canaveral launch site in Florida.

The controversial decision to not broadcast their second launch attempt was, according to Shotwell and despite what some in the spaceflight community may think, never intended to eliminate live streaming coverage of the company’s launch attempts. Quite the opposite actually.

Typical Florida summertime storms kept Falcon-9 and its OG2 payload grounded Saturday, June 21. Photo Credit: AmericaSpace / John Studwell

Typical Florida summertime storms kept Falcon-9 and its OG2 payload grounded Saturday, June 21. Photo Credit: AmericaSpace / John Studwell

“We’re not changing our plan (for webcasting), but we were moving away from the webcast format that we had before to get to a kind of higher-tech feel, and we were just going to transition away (from the old format),” said Shotwell. “Saturday launch, even though we attempted it the weather did not look like we would be able to fly, and so we thought we could take that one day to transition (the webcast format).”

“Public opinion was very strong on that point, about the webcast, people like us to live stream, so on Sunday we were setting up to live stream,” added Shotwell. “It’s not quite up to production level yet, but we were going to do something.”

So, SpaceX made a bad call when deciding to transition their webcast format ON a launch day, but secrecy or an effort to blackout the public was never the intention (as SpaceX has been accused of by some). The decision to not live stream a webcast of Saturday’s launch attempt was made because the company expected a weather scrub anyway and wanted to use the opportunity to transition their webcast to a more updated version. Nonetheless, the decision also eliminated any webcast at all for Saturday’s launch attempt, and hopefully SpaceX has learned from the experience.

“It’s easy for people to jump to some nefarious plot for any circumstance that looks odd, but in this case we were simply moving away from that specific broadcast format anyhow,” added Shotwell.

The first launch attempt on Friday, June 20, was called off when the launch team identified an apparent “pressure decrease” in the second stage of the Falcon-9 rocket during final countdown operations. After determining the pressure issue would not impact the launch SpaceX pressed on for a second launch attempt Saturday, but that attempt was eventually called off for stormy weather at the launch site. Sunday’s third launch attempt was called off when standard pre-flight checks identified a potential issue on the Falcon-9, but until now no real details have been presented on what exactly that “potential issue” was. 

“During pre-flight checkouts Sunday morning we saw some issue with a thrust vector control actuator on the rocket’s first stage,” said Shotwell. “It’s likely something we could have flown through during flight, but we wanted to make sure we are super careful, and we actually wanted to go in and check the second stage actuator as well. We’re just being very careful, we don’t want schedule pressure to drive a launch where there can be an issue.”

The SpaceX Falcon-9 v1.1 rocket with its OG2 payload waiting out the storms, which eventually scrubbed the company's second launch attempt. Photo Credit: AmericaSpace / John Studwell

The SpaceX Falcon-9 v1.1 rocket with its OG2 payload waiting out the storms, which eventually scrubbed the company’s second launch attempt. Photo Credit: AmericaSpace / John Studwell

Not that SpaceX isn’t already extremely careful in preparing for any launch, but the more cautious approach to any technical issue with this particular mission might have something to do with the fact that SpaceX previously failed to deliver the first OG-2 “prototype” satellite into orbit for ORBCOMM a couple years ago. During that flight an upper stage engine shortfall caused ORBCOMM’s OG2 prototype, which flew as a secondary payload for Dragon’s ride to the ISS, to be inserted into a low orbit of just 125 x 200 miles (200 x 320 km), instead of the planned 220 x 470 miles (350 x 750 km). The low orbit was “unworkable,” and the first OG-2 re-entered the atmosphere to destruction a few days later.

That failure, however, has not hurt the relationship between SpaceX and customer ORBCOMM.

“As with most startups, there were a couple of missions that didn’t go as planned and as they were struggling, we signed with SpaceX to be our launch provider for our whole constellation on the night before their first successful mission,” said ORBCOMM CEO Marc Eisenberg in an interview with Via Satellite earlier this month. “SpaceX has always been near and dear to our hearts and we hope they feel the same as we grow our businesses in parallel.” 

One of the ORBCOMM OG-2 satellite preparing for testing ahead of launch. Photo Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.

One of the ORBCOMM OG-2 satellite preparing for testing ahead of launch. Photo Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.

The U.S. Air Force Eastern Range, which supports all space launches from Cape Canaveral and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, is currently conducting a two-week shutdown for scheduled maintenance. Once that work is complete next month, SpaceX will proceed with trying again to launch OG2.

“July 14 and 15 are the days we have requested from the Range, but I don’t yet have confirmation that we have those dates back,” said Shotwell. “The Range has wanted to go on a two-week maintenance shutdown, and we couldn’t guarantee that we will be ready to fly in the next few days, so we told the Range to shutdown and do their maintenance because we don’t want to put that off. In the meantime we’ll obviously spend more time examining the rocket and doing everything we can to make sure this flight is successful.”

The mission, which was originally scheduled to fly last May, will deliver the first six of 17 ORBCOMM telecommunications satellites into a circular orbit of 460 x 460 miles (750 x 750 km), inclined 52 degrees to the equator. Once in position and operational they will remain in service for at least five years and provide two-way messaging services for global customers.

AmericaSpace will, as always, provide on-site coverage and a live stream webcast (courtesy of SpaceX) when the next launch attempt(s) occur. Check back regularly for updates.

 

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Missions » ORBCOMM » SpaceX OG2 M1 »

17 comments to SpaceX President on Falcon-9 OG2 Delays and Webcast Concerns, Company Aiming for July 14/15 Launch Attempt

  • […] Gwynne Shotwell explains. […]

  • Tracy the Troll

    Please …just annouce after the launch…Everything that SpaceX does is BETA version because the implemented tech is constantly being upgraded…The reality is that the satellites are secondary to reusability progress that is being made!!

    • Joe:

      Since ORBCOMM is paying SpaceX to launch its satellites, it would be imprudent for SpaceX to tell them that their “satellites are secondary” to internal SpaceX objectives.

  • geo

    Honestly.. Gwen has been and is an excellent spokesperson for SpaceX.

  • ttrianglek

    So are they not webcasting because their flights have become “routine” or because they are switching to a new format? It seems like if the reason was as benign as a format change that they would have announced that instead of creating a media frenzy. Sounds like a bad explaniation for a really bad mistake!

  • JD

    People behave as if SpaceX owes them live footage or something.

    • ken anthony

      Yes, this is the typical behavior of children. Adults recognize the free ice cream and have the appropriate appreciation.

      • Joe:

        Yes, just a bunch of people (including the press) acting like children. That is the reason SpaceX has (so far) come out with two mutually exclusive explanations as to what happened:
        (1) flights had become routine and they were discontinuing the service because it was no longer needed.
        (2) They were only changing the format and never intended to discontinue the service.

  • Dennis Berube

    I do agree with SpaceX as to being cautious. An in flight disaster would hurt their reputations far more than not Web-casting. I am very glad however that the Webcasts will continue. Cant wait for the Falcon Heavy or the Dragon V2…. Go SpaceX!!!!!!!

  • Joe:

    “We’re not changing our plan (for webcasting), but we were moving away from the webcast format that we had before to get to a kind of higher-tech feel, and we were just going to transition away (from the old format),” said Shotwell. “Saturday launch, even though we attempted it the weather did not look like we would be able to fly, and so we thought we could take that one day to transition (the webcast format).”

    That is a change from SpaceX original explanation (that the flights had become routine).

    A couple of questions (if the answers are known):
    (1) Did SpaceX make any earlier announcement of the supposed format change?
    (2) What is exactly meant by format change (what would be the advantage to the user, what is meant by “higher-tech feel”)?

  • DeborahRoberts

    GO, SPACEX! They do not owe us anything, they are private company. I believe in Elon and Gwynne Shotwell. Look how far SpaceX has come. Safety first, launch second. I like the Web cast. Except the last girl, in the checkerd shirt, a novice, I felt like she should be announcing the weather. It’s exhilarating to watch each time they go up! Cannot wait to see the “Flexible Fins”! Go, ELON, Go, GWYNNE, Go, SPACEX and ALL the team!

  • Tom hanley

    Many of you are right, SpaceX does not actually owe us anything. They are executing agreements allowing for the exchange of goods and services between themselves and their customers, Many of which are privately held companies. Still others feel that because SpaceX is involved in development of goods and services for our government, they do owe us a legally allowed level of insight into activities. The reality is that it is two different situations. Regardless of these minor issues, all spacecraft flying from Government Launch sites should be viewable to the public. Most of the launches in the US recently have been Government financed anyway except the recent commercial launches by SpaceX. The nature of the “effective” news blackout during the Saturday launch attempt still raises questions based on Gwynne Shotwells interview.
    1. Due to the arguably low launch rate exhibited by SpaceX to date, Why would anyone rationally make a major format change to either you launch vehicle or your broadcast capacity during an actual launch campaign?. effective broadcasts of any type take practice to set up and execute flawlessly. It makes no sense to change in mid stream. This could better have been handled in between launches.
    2. Why did all message traffic from SpaceX cease providing any status or updates. all real information was being provided by representatives of the AF 45 launch wing which I am sure distressed them no end. Infact SpaceX and Elon Musk’s twitter feeds discontinued any information flow for almost two days. This was infact the most distressing. Twitter is meant for this type of update and notification. The web cast failure is one thing, but to black out both exceeds explanation.
    3. As others have questioned, what is entailed in the change of Format. I assume their intent is to remove the attendant webcast personalities and the background film footage used to update people not aware of SpaceX history, roadmap, and Tech.
    4. After a career in communication, starting back in the years when your value was to be considered the Graphics Guys or Tech pub, I have been part of the rise in stature of Corporate Communications Departments. I know their value and how much of a pain in the butt they can be for free wheeling management who don’t engage well with the public. It appears that SpaceX needs a strong Corporate Communications department to steer them through these simple mistakes “which are not Rocket Science” I noticed on their web site’s listing of corporate officers there is no listing for a VP of Communications. This is an indication of the value placed on its function. (remember i did say they can be a pain in the butt).

    The company is great, I am excited about the technology but some mid course corrections are in order

    • ken anthony

      all spacecraft flying from Government Launch sites should be viewable to the public

      Aren’t they? This doesn’t mean spaceX is obligated in any way to provide webcasts.

  • http://www.esquire.com/_mobile/features/americans-2012/elon-musk-interview-1212

    “NASA has married itself to Elon,” Jim Cantrell says. “There’s no way that NASA can survive without him, and they’re stuck.”

    “The whole commercial space moniker is a farce,” says Scott Horowitz. “It’s ‘We don’t like those contractors, let’s replace them with these contractors.'”

    For his entire life, Elon Musk has bent people to his insatiable will. Most recently, he’s…

    • Matt McClanahan

      From the article comments: “This article is inaccurate in nearly all details where I have direct knowledge of the events in question.” – Robert Zubrin

      • Joe:

        Zubrin also says of Musk in his post “He wanted a technical consultant. I recommended Jim Cantrell, who I had known for years, and introduced the two of them to each other.”

        So Zubrin (according to Zubrin) recommended Cantrell to Musk as a technical consultant and Cantrell now has some less than complementary things to say about Musk and SpaceX.

        I am not sure that this makes the point you want to make.

  • Jay Fenex

    People are rooting for Spacex and they want to follow the progress the company is making. It’s just that simple. We look forward to watching the next exciting launch.