A week after its original launch target, SpaceX launch engineers and technicians appear to have completed an additional suite of preflight checks that triggered an unusually long delay from November 19 to November 28.
As a sort of happy accident, the mission – a Spaceflight Industries rideshare carrying ~64 satellites – will not only be the first time SpaceX has launched a given Falcon 9 booster three times, but it will also become the first time SpaceX has launched the same Falcon 9 booster from all three of the company’s orbital launch facilities.
Standing down from Monday’s launch attempt of Spaceflight SSO-A: SmallSat Express to conduct additional pre-flight inspections. Once complete, we will confirm a new launch date.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) November 17, 2018
Likely a matter of caution over expediency, that extra time was used to make sure that the mission’s twice-flown Falcon 9 B1046 booster is as ready as possible for its third launch, a subtle but absolutely critical milestone for Falcon 9 reusability. More importantly, from an operational standpoint, this is something that the company has simply never attempted, meaning that while it’s similar in concept to the numerous booster reuses SpaceX engineers and technicians have already pulled off, every aspect of B1046’s refurbishment and preparation for another launch is new territory for all.
In this sense, even the most minor observations and procedural developments are likely being documented with extreme care, paving the way for the systematic refurbishment of Block 5 boosters with 2+ launches on their manifest. Similar to how car mechanics know to look at and for dramatically different things depending on the age of the car and the time since its last maintenance, reusable rockets are likely to require an even more exotic and unintuitive approach to multi-flight maintenance and repair diagnostics. As such, it should come as little surprise that SpaceX chose to delay SSO-A a few days to ensure that the rocket is ready to safely place its payload in orbit.
— Deimos Imaging (@deimosimaging) November 27, 2018
Aside from the extreme importance of its third launch, Falcon 9 B1046 will be subject to another rather unique situation. Barely a mile or two northeast of SpaceX’s SLC-4 launch complex, a ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket is assembled and nearly ready to place the National Reconnaissance Office’s classified NROL-71 satellite into a high-energy Earth orbit. If the extraordinarily expensive launch vehicle (~$350-400M) it sits atop of is any sign, NROL-71 is a massive satellite that cost the NRO anywhere from $500M to $2B to design, procure, and prepare for launch.
In other words, the sheer capital at risk has likely resulted in a bit of manifest and range jockeying between Falcon 9/SpaceX and Delta Heavy/ULA/NRO. Under normal circumstances, Falcon 9 B1046 could without a doubt perform a Return-To-Launch-Site (RTLS) recovery, sending the booster all the back to SLC-4 for a landing at LZ-4.
Instead, likely prevented from landing at LZ-4 due to the slight chance that Falcon 9 could impact at or around ULA’s launch pad in an off-nominal situation, SpaceX has decided to station drone ship Just Read The Instructions less than 30 miles (50 km) off the coast of Vandenberg Air Force Base. In this odd and unused landing mode, Falcon 9 will perform a sort of RTLS Lite, returning back in the direction of the launch site but not going far enough to actually reach it.
In doing so, B1046 will – fingers crossed – become the first Falcon 9 booster to land on both SpaceX drone ships and launch from all three of the company’s orbital facilities, LC-40 (Cape Canaveral Air Force Station), LC-39A (Kennedy Space Center), and SLC-4 (Vandenberg Air Force Base).