Friday, May 18, 2012

SpaceX Readies Falcon 9 Rocket---No, Not That One

The excitement of waiting to see a launch can do strange things to me. Tonight, it can make me fall asleep at 6 PM, instead of my more usual midnight to one AM, so I can get sleep before the upcoming SpaceX CTOS-2+ launch. It can make me so excited that I woke back up after just three of the five hours I'd hoped to spend asleep. And, apparently, it can spur me to blog for the first time in...a while. Anyway, I'm probably going to be sharing several pictures of Falcon 9 and Dragon tonight, but I have some special ones first. THESE ARE NOT COTS-2+. This is the next Falcon 9, whose first and second stages are already in storage at a site near the SpaceX launch complex at LC-40 (specifically an old Delta facility, Hangar AO). There's only room for one rocket at a time in the main SpaceX integration hangar, and right now COTS-2+ is filling it (well, not right now, since it's rolled out to the pad, but it has dibs :) ). Hangar AO serves as a surge facility, letting them store hardware that won't fit in the main hangar until it's actually needed or there's room for it.
If all goes well tonight, in the next few weeks this hardware will be sitting where the COTS-2+ rocket was a few days ago, being readied for the next launch. Similarly, another Dragon is being completed at SpaceX's factory at Hawethorne. If tonight's launch and the coming mission goes well, that flight could become CRS-1, the first operational commercial launch to ISS. Otherwise, it becomes COTS-3, a third demo flight to prove that they can fix whatever the forces of Murphy's law might throw at them on COTS-2+. As I hear, that would be planned for August or September--driven by the time to finish preparing the Dragon and for a hole in the ISS's packed visiting vehicle schedule.

For SpaceX, the next critical goal after flying Dragon to ISS is to demonstrate that they can achieve the kind of flight rate needed to satisfy both NASA's CRS cargo contracts and the contracts they have to launch satellites for research, communications, and navigation. To do this, they have to step up their game in terms of launch rate and production. Having this hardware at the Cape already is one small step in that direction.