SpaceX’s first dedicated Falcon Heavy launch for NASA has been hit by a seven-week delay after spacecraft engineers discovered a software anomaly during preflight processing.
Named after the exotic metallic asteroid it’s designed to explore, NASA’s Psyche spacecraft completed its journey from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center launch facilities in late April. To this day, it’s the first and only Falcon Heavy payload to actually reach Kennedy Space Center since mid-2019. At the time of its arrival, it was somewhat unclear when Falcon Heavy would finally end its three-year launch hiatus or what payload(s) would be atop the rocket for the event.
Three weeks later, both things are still unclear, but now for different reasons.
On May 23rd, Spaceflight Now reported that it had received a written statement from NASA confirming that Psyche’s launch had been delayed from August 1st, 2022 to no earlier than (NET) September 20th “after ground teams discovered an issue during software testing on the spacecraft.” After the spacecraft’s arrival at a Kennedy Space Center payload processing facility, teams have spent the last few weeks combing over Psyche and making sure that it survived the journey without issue. At an unknown point, engineers would have needed to power on the spacecraft’s computers to perform extensive diagnostic tests. It’s also possible that a late build of Psyche’s flight software was being analyzed externally before final installation.
Either way, something went wrong. For the moment, all NASA is willing to say is that “an issue is preventing confirmation that the software controlling the spacecraft is functioning as planned.” Although it does seem to center around software, such a vague statement fails to rule out the possibility of a hardware problem, which could help to better explain why NASA and the spacecraft team rapidly chose to delay Psyche’s launch by more than seven weeks.
For unknown reasons, virtually every near-term Falcon Heavy payload has slipped significantly from its original launch target. Within the last few weeks, USSF-44 – meant to launch as early as June 2022 after years of delays – was “delayed indefinitely.” Delayed from Q3 2020, USSF-52 is now scheduled to launch in October 2022. ViaSat-3, once meant to launch on Falcon Heavy in 2020, is now NET September 2022. Jupiter-3, a record-breaking communications satellite that wasn’t actually confirmed to be a Falcon Heavy launch contract until a few weeks ago, recently slipped from 2021 and 2022 to early 2023.
Only USSF-67, which hasn’t had its official launch target updated in more than a year, is reportedly still on track to launch somewhere within its original launch window (H2 2022). If it actually does launch without delay on a Falcon Heavy rocket in November 2022, it will be quite the outlier. Meanwhile, Psyche’s September 20th delay means that it could now conflict with Falcon Heavy’s ViaSat-3 mission, which must use the same launch pad. More likely than not, ViaSat-3 was already likely to slip into Q4, but the situation exemplifies how agonizing scheduling launches for almost half a dozen chronically-delayed payloads must be for SpaceX.
Meanwhile, SpaceX must also store and maintain nine different Falcon Heavy boosters as they are forced to continue waiting for their long-assigned missions. SpaceX’s entire fleet of operational Falcon 9s – including one Falcon Heavy booster temporarily serving as a Falcon 9 – contains 12 boosters, meaning that more than 40% of all Falcon boosters are currently dead weight.