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.
“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.”
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.”
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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