Update: Despite no plans for a preflight static fire, SpaceX remains on track to attempt its last launch and landing of 2020 as early as 9 am EST (14:00 UTC), Thursday, December 17th.
After performing a routine preflight wet dress rehearsal (WDR) and booster static fire prior to every launch since September 2016, SpaceX has gradually begun to loosen the requirement for flight-proven rockets in 2020. Instead, if a prior flight or post-flight inspection reveal issues, static fires will serve more as a data-driven diagnostic tool. For flight-proven boosters with a clean bill of health, so to speak, SpaceX appears to be confident enough to skip the procedure on a few internal Starlink launches and the odd customer mission.
Now, despite NROL-108 begin the NRO’s first direct launch contract with SpaceX and first flight on a flight-proven Falcon 9 rocket of any kind, let alone the four-flight booster assigned to support it, the espionage agency apparently has equal faith in SpaceX. Falcon 9 B1059, a new upper stage and payload fairing, and the unspecified NROL-108 payload(s) went vertical at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Launch Complex 39A on December 16th – far too late for any WDR or static fire testing prior to an early December 17th launch attempt.
The mission will be SpaceX’s 26th and final launch of 2020 and – barring a major surprise – the last orbital US launch of the year. As usual, SpaceX will broadcast the launch live, with coverage beginning around 15 minutes prior to liftoff (8:45 am EST/UTC-5).
The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) says that SpaceX remains on track to attempt its last Falcon 9 launch and landing of the year after an almost two-month delay.
Originally scheduled to launch as early as October, the secretive orbital espionage agency’s NROL-108 launch plans were quietly revealed in routine communication permission requests filed by SpaceX with the FCC. Unfortunately, those plans came around the same time as a Falcon 9 booster engine issue aborted a SpaceX launch at the last second and forced the company to undergo a quick but extensive anomaly investigation. As it turns out, the Falcon 9 booster assigned to support NROL-108 (B1059) was practically siblings with the three new boosters affected by the investigation.
SpaceX may have had to swap some of the nine Merlin 1D engines on B1059, although a far less likely outcome given that B1059 had successfully completed four launches and landings at that point. Ultimately, while nothing is known for sure, payload-side issues with the NROL-108 satellite(s) are the most likely cause of most of the eight-week delay that followed. Now, confirmed by the NRO on December 14th, SpaceX is scheduled to launch its second mission for the spy agency no earlier than (NET) 9 am to 12 pm EST (14:00-17:00 UTC) on Thursday, December 17th.
For SpaceX, this will be the third time in a single month that a customer has effectively leapfrogged several Falcon 9 booster reuse milestones, once again exhibiting an extreme amount of confidence in the company’s expertise with flight-proven rockets. On December 6th, Falcon 9 booster B1058 lifted off for the fourth time in support of SpaceX’s CRS-21 space station resupply mission for NASA, marking the space agency’s first launch on a twice- or thrice-flown booster.
On December 13th, carrying a large communications satellite for Sirius XM, another Falcon 9 booster lifted off for the seventh time, becoming the first private customer to launch on a five-flight or six-flight SpaceX rocket.
As few as four days after SXM-7, SpaceX is now scheduled to launch the mysterious NROL-108 mission. It will be the first time the NRO has launched a payload on a flight-proven commercial rocket of any kind, as well as its first launch on a two-flight, three-flight, or four-flight booster – by far the biggest numerical leap a SpaceX customer has ever taken. NRO’s first and only SpaceX launch – technically contracted by spacecraft provider Bell Aerospace, not NRO itself – was completed in May 2017.
While less significant, NROL-108 will also be SpaceX’s first US government launch on a four-flight Falcon 9 booster, yet another indication that even its most conservative customers have fully bought into the value and technical viability of reusable rockets.
After launch, Falcon 9 B1059 will flip around and head back towards the Florida coast for a landing at one of SpaceX’s two East Coast Landing Zones. Deploying a minute or so after booster separation, Falcon 9’s two payload fairing halves are expected to splash down some 330 km (~205 mi) downrange, where SpaceX recovery ships GO Search and GO Ms Tree will attempt recovery.