On June 12th, SpaceX successfully fired up a once-flown Falcon 9 booster in the lead-up to the company’s fourth launch of an upgraded GPS III navigation satellite for the US military.
Dating back several years, SpaceX has won a vast majority of GPS III launches thanks to Falcon 9’s exceptional combination of reliability and affordability, securing all five competitively-awarded contracts. The company aced its first GPS III launch in December 2019, expending a brand new Falcon 9 booster (B1054) due to customer – not performance – requirements necessary to ensure extreme margins in the event of some kind of anomaly or underperformance during launch.
In June 2020, SpaceX once again launched a GPS III satellite for the US military, though this time the company was allowed to attempt to land the Falcon 9 booster supporting the mission – which it successfully recovered without issue. Less than five months after GPS III SV03’s successful launch, SpaceX turned around and launched GPS III SV04 – again with an all-new Falcon 9 rocket – and recovered the booster at sea. A few months prior, however, the US Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) announced a contract modification that would allow SpaceX to begin reusing Falcon 9 boosters on National Security Space Launch (NSSL) missions – beginning with the company’s fourth GPS III launch.
Seven months later, SMC revealed that it has officially cleared SpaceX to begin launching GPS III (and other official NSSL) satellites on flight-proven Falcon rockets. Notably, that might include a Falcon Heavy launch – USSF-52 – planned as early as January 2022 that could reuse two new side boosters scheduled to debut on USSF-44 as early as October 2021.
In the meantime, though, GPS III SV05 – scheduled to launch no earlier than (NET) 12:09 pm EDT (16:09 UTC), Thursday, June 17th – is just two days away from becoming the first NSSL (formerly EELV) satellite to launch on a flight-proven commercial rocket. GPS III SV05 will reuse the same Falcon 9 booster (B1062) that successfully launched GPS III SV04 seven months prior.
While an extremely slow turnaround relative to any other modern Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy booster, those seven months mainly gave the US military margin to fully certify flight-proven Falcons and satellite manufacturer Lockheed Martin time to deal with shortage and coronavirus-related delays. On June 12th, after rolling out to SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral LC-40 launch pad, GPS III SV05’s Falcon 9 rocket completed a wet dress rehearsal that culminated in a successful several-second static fire of booster B1062.
Now cleared for flight, Falcon 9 will be brought horizontal and roll back to LC-40’s integration hangar, where SpaceX will install the encapsulated GPS III SV05 satellite and payload fairing on top of the rocket’s expendable second stage.
The integrated payload assembly rolled from a nearby payload processing facility to LC-40 on June 13th, giving SpaceX four days to complete integration, roll Falcon 9 back out to the launch pad, and prepare the rocket for flight. Now alone on the East Coast for the first time in 12 months, drone ship Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) departed Port Canaveral for the GPS III SV05 booster recovery zone on the same day, followed by the latest in a line of temporary fairing recovery ships on June 14th to scoop the mission’s nosecone halves out of the Atlantic.
L-3 weather forecasts predict a 40% chance of delay on June 17th, improving to 30% on June 18th. Stay tuned for webcast details as SpaceX nears the first of many flight-proven launches for the US military.