SpaceX schedules next GPS satellite launch attempt after swapping Falcon 9 engines

Via the US Air Force, SpaceX has published some of the best views ever of Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket production. (SpaceX)

Multiple outlets report that SpaceX has rescheduled its third US military GPS III satellite launch to no earlier than (NET) 6:24 pm EDT (23:24 UTC) Thursday, November 5th.

Agonizingly, a United Launch Alliance (ULA) National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) launch – albeit a different mission – is scheduled just two days before SpaceX’s next GPS III SV04 launch window. In other words, odds are once again high that SpaceX will get stuck in a cycle of delays if its competitor suffers additional launch delays.

Thankfully, ULA’s NROL-101 mission – scheduled to launch no earlier than 5:30 pm EDT (22:30 UTC), Tuesday, November 3rd – will fly on an Atlas V rocket. While still averaging just 5-6 launches annually throughout the last decade, several annual launches go a long way towards ensuring workforce, infrastructure, and vehicle readiness, whereas Delta IV – partially responsible for ULA’s chronic NROL-44 delays – has averaged a meager two launches annually for most of its operational life.

Even worse, Delta IV’s Heavy variant has only flown 11 times since 2004 and just three times in the last six years – a perfect recipe for terrible reliability.

An Atlas V rocket lifts off in December 2019. (Richard Angle)
A Delta IV Heavy rocket lifts off in 2018. (Tom Cross)

Meanwhile, SpaceX’s Block 5 Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets have undeniably exhibited their own minor reliability issues since their May 2018 debut, but on-time launch reliability and bug-free countdowns quickly became the norm over the last 12-18 months. In the ~30 months since then, Falcon Block 5 rockets have completed 41 consecutively successful launches – the sheer quantity of which has almost certainly helped SpaceX iron out bugs in the new variant.

In general, SpaceX is known for moving extraordinarily fast relative to the rest of the aerospace industry. Notably, since Falcon 9 B1062 suffered a rare last-second launch abort on October 2nd, SpaceX has discovered an issue with several new Merlin 1D booster engines and apparently removed affected engines from Falcon 9 booster B1062, shipped the engines to McGregor, Texas for testing, characterized the bad behavior, and implemented a fix capable of satisfying their strictest customers (NASA and the US military) in roughly three weeks.

Falcon 9 B1060 rolls out to LC-40 with an upper stage, fairing, and GPS III SV03 in June 2020. (SpaceX)

More likely than not, Falcon 9 B1062 will be static fired again before the next launch attempt, meaning that the rocket will likely roll out to the launch pad around November 1st or 2nd if things are proceeding nominally. With any luck, SpaceX’s solution will hold and enable a successful Falcon 9 GPS III SV04 static fire and launch a few days after ULA’s own NROL-101 mission.

Eric Ralph: I write about space, among other things.
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