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SpaceX Falcon Heavy testing delayed after government shutdown

As the U.S. Senate’s majority party searches for ten additional votes in order to end a federal government shutdown that began late Saturday, all “non-essential” activities at the country’s numerous government-operated space launch facilities have ground to an immediate halt and will remain in limbo until a funding bill compromise is hammered out.

While SpaceX is a wholly private space launch company, it relies almost unilaterally upon launch support and range expertise provided by NASA and the US Air Force, both in Cape Canaveral, FL and Vandenberg, CA. Sadly, the Air Force personnel SpaceX depend upon to conduct launches, static fires, and other ignition tests at its launch pads are not considered “essential” under regulations that prevent the federal government from coming to a complete halt in the event of a funding-related shutdown.

SpaceX did appear to complete the most thorough round of Falcon Heavy testing yet late Saturday evening, the US Senate’s failure to either pass a continuing resolution or a new funding bill for the fiscal year led to a complete federal government shutdown soon after. As a result, nearly all of the US Air Force’s 45th Space Wing – a crucial backbone of East coast range and launch operations – was furloughed indefinitely, pending new funding from Congress. SpaceX had previously requested a new static fire date for Falcon Heavy on Monday, January 22 (today), a date that is now clearly going to move right for at least as long as the government lacks funding for basic launch operations.

Thankfully, activities like the extensive propellant loading tests that occurred on Saturday night do not technically require range support, so long as no engine ignition or static fire components are included. In the event of a catastrophic failure, the government-run range would be tasked with ensuring the safety of those in the vicinity and coordinating the emergency response that would immediately follow. This policy is brought somewhat into question by the failure of Amos-6 – although that Falcon 9 was being prepared for a static fire test, its highly-destructive failure is understood to have occurred at least five or more minutes before the planned point of ignition. Nevertheless, SpaceX will be able to continue some level of testing with Falcon Heavy, if needed.

Elsewhere, instability

While SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy has undoubtedly garnered magnitudes more eyeballs than the company’s Falcon 9 activities, the government shutdown could be far more consequential for SpaceX’s customers if it cannot be halted within a handful of days. A federal shutdown lasting several days is a hugely disruptive and damaging event on its own, lack of range support on the East coast could quickly begin to eat into SpaceX’s GovSat-1 preparations, the launch of which is targeting NET late January/January 30. For GovSat-1’s flight-proven booster, a static fire at the launch site is unlikely to be bypassed (SpaceX has never skipped a prelaunch static fire), and would typically occur no fewer than four or five days before launch. As a result, in the somewhat unlikely event that the shutdown stretches beyond the next several days, SpaceX customers SES and GovSat could see their launch delayed, an event that would likely bring financial consequences to the public-private satellite venture.

Looking slightly farther into the future, SpaceX’s flight-proven launch of PAZ and two of its own prototype communications satellites is just about two weeks away from its own static fire test, this time at the West Coast’s Vandenberg Air Force Base. Such an extended shutdown would be utterly unprecedented, but if 2017 and 2018 have done anything at all, they’ve tempered tendencies towards knee-jerk claims of “that’ll never happen!”

Here’s to hoping that Congress can get their act together and return to those they represent the bare minimum of federal stability, for both federal employees and those that depend upon them.

Update: After a solid two days of shutdown, the Senate has apparently reached an agreement to pass a continuing resolution that will maintain funding for another three weeks, after which a new FY2018 budget must be passed to avoid another shutdown. While this thankfully means that the impact to the Space Coast and the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing should be relatively small, I have left my above thoughts on the potential impacts of a longer shutdown untouched for posterity. 

Follow along live as launch photographer Tom Cross and I cover these exciting proceedings as close to live as possible.

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SpaceX Falcon Heavy testing delayed after government shutdown
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