Falcon 9 gears up for flight over weekend as SpaceX contract dispute lingers

5 Feb 2015

Deep Space Climate Observatory being installed in the Falcon 9, via NASA/Kim Shiflett

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is set for its second flight in less than a month, in which it is to bring a space weather-reading satellite into orbit on Sunday.

The commercial flight, bringing the NOAA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory into the skies, won’t be Falcon 9’s last flight this year, either, with up to 14 potentially planned for 2015.

January saw Elon Musk’s Falcon 9 get its new year off to a rocky start, successfully bringing supplies up to the ISS – part one of its mission – before unsuccessfully landing the engine safely onto a barge in the ocean – part two.

The engine is the most expensive part of spacecraft and any way of reclaiming used engines, undamaged, would be a major step forward for operators in the spacecraft arena.

Close, but no cigar

Falcon 9’s attempt to navigate the engine back to a planned point was successful in some degree, in that it found the right spot, but unsuccessful in another in that it was fairly wrecked on impact.

SpaceX engineers are continuing their research into one-day creating a re-usable rocket for commercial space travel.

However for now, launching the Deep Space Climate Observatory in space – the satellite will ultimately reach a distance of one million miles from Earth – is the primary concern, the results of which will allow the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA to monitor space weather and solar wind for five years.

A bigger debate

Interestingly this latest launch comes amid political wrangling over the future of US national security related space missions, with SpaceX so far limited to a bit-part role in NASA’s activities.

US senator John McCain has complained about US space spending, claiming that costs have skyrocketed (pun intended) due to a closed-shop tendering process.

In an apparent reference to SpaceX’s ability to create suitable crafts, McCain complained of the fourfold increase in cost of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, a programme the US use to get satellites and the likes into space.

“The cost of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle has exploded from around US$100 million per launch to US$400 million per launch over the last 15 years,” he said, “after the Air Force allowed years of sole-source contracts while, especially over the last few months, actively keeping out any other companies from competing.

A waiting game

He said he was hopeful that this year the US Air Force would certify new entrants, with the fresh competition driving down prices, “and end our reliance on Russian rocket engines.”

The Falcon 9 has not yet been certified by the US Air Force to allow it in on the big business of commercial space operations dominated by the United Launch Alliance.

Instead, SpaceX has been forced to deal in the space tasks not considered part of the lucritive national security related missions, a market which the company claims could charge the US government far less for.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic