SpaceX has been hit by multiple back-to-back Falcon 9 launch and Starship test delays in a period of a few days, ending the company’s second attempt at a potentially record-breaking month.
Originally scheduled to launch no earlier than (NET) June 22nd, give or take, SpaceX’s own Starlink-9 satellite mission kicked off the misfortune and has suffered the most. After SpaceX announced an indefinite delay on July 11th to allow for “more time for checkouts”, Starlink-9 is not expected to launch for several more days at best. On July 13th, SpaceX announced that another summer mission targeting a NET July 14th launch had also been delayed indefinitely to allow teams to inspect the Falcon 9 rocket’s upper stage and potentially replace hardware.
Those two delays have had follow-on effects on subsequent launches planned in late July and early August but the actual end-results will be hard to determine until SpaceX has settled on alternate launch dates for Starlink-9 and ANASIS II. Meanwhile, all throughout those orbital-class launch delays, the first Raptor engine test with SpaceX’s fifth full-scale Starship has been consistently delayed and is now expected no earlier than this week (roughly July 15-19). The swath of delays have been so pronounced and oddly simultaneous that CEO Elon Musk even weighed in on Twitter yesterday, shedding a bit of light on the situation.
On July 13th, in response to a Spaceflight Now article detailing a few of those setbacks, Musk revealed that SpaceX is “being extra paranoid” – presumably the cause of most of the recent delays. Per Musk, “maximizing [the] probability of [a] successful launch is paramount” to SpaceX – not exactly a shocking revelation but still good to hear. Over the last six or so weeks, SpaceX has attempted to substantially ramp its launch cadence, targeting an unprecedented four launches in June 2020.
Delays reared their head, however, beginning with Starlink-9 around the last week of the month. SpaceX simply carried its four-launch-month ambitions into July, although that goal has already been pushed out of reach before the first launch of the month. As of July 1st, SpaceX has completed 11 launches in 2020 and has at least another 16 within tentative launch targets in the second half of the year. To complete all 16, the company would have to average almost three launches per month for the rest of 2020, a cadence it’s only managed to sustain for two or so months at a time.
Before ANASIS II’s indefinite delay was announced, Falcon 9 booster B1058 was on track to smash the world record for the fastest turnaround of an orbital class rocket, beating NASA’s Space Shuttle by ~20% (9 days). Somewhat ironically, some concerns surrounding the unflown upper stage have triggered said delay, while the record-breaking B1058 booster was apparently ready for launch. Like Starlink-9, ANASIS II’s delay is indefinite, meaning that it could last just a few days or stretch weeks into the future. If SpaceX manages to turn around for a second launch attempt before July 26th, though, B1058 still has a shot at becoming the world’s most rapidly reusable orbital-class rocket.
Meanwhile, Starship SN5 has been slowly wading through delay after delay as SpaceX’s South Texas team prepares the rocket for its first wet dress rehearsals (WDRs) with live propellant and its first Raptor engine ignition tests (i.e. static fires). As few as a few days after that test is complete, SpaceX wants to launch the massive steel rocket on the first full-scale hop test, potentially reaching 150m (500 ft) or higher before attempting to land nearby.
Prior to numerous delays, Starship SN5’s first static fire was expected to occur as early as late June or early July. As of now, SpaceX appears to be targeting the first wet dress rehearsal (WDR) with live methane and oxygen propellant (a precursor to any flight test) no earlier than (NET) July 15th to test SN5’s “fuel pump.” If successful, SpaceX would presumably move into static fire operations within a few days, followed another few days later by the first hop test attempt if the static fire was also successful.
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