SpaceX’s third Falcon Heavy launch is just one month away

Falcon Heavy side boosters B1052 and B1053 land at Landing Zones 1 and 2 (LZ-1/LZ-2) after their launch debut and Falcon Heavy's first commercial mission. Both will fly again as part of the STP-2 mission. (USAF - James Rainier)

SpaceX is exactly one month away from Falcon Heavy’s next scheduled launch, an important mission for the US Air Force known as Space Test Program 2 (STP-2). Carrying 24 satellites of various sizes, Falcon Heavy is scheduled to lift off for the third time as early as June 22nd.

In support of the mission, SpaceX will need to completely integrate Falcon Heavy and prepare the rocket for a routine static fire test approximately one week prior to launch, sometime in mid-June. STP-2 will be critical to both SpaceX and the USAF for a number of reasons, ranging from rocket reusability to the future of US military launch procurement.

Rapid Falcon Heavy reuse

From a technological standpoint, Falcon Heavy Flight 3 will be a milestone in large part due to its reuse of two Falcon Heavy side boosters, previously flown on April 11th as part of Falcon Heavy’s Arabsat 6A commercial launch debut. Around eight minutes after launching the ~6450 kg (14,200 lb) satellite on its way to an exceptionally high transfer orbit of 90,000 km (56,000 mi), side boosters B1052 and B1053 completed flawless landings at LZ-1 and LZ-2.

Both boosters were quickly ‘broken over’ (brought horizontal) and transported to Pad 39A’s main hangar for inspection and refurbishment. Relative to almost all other Block 5 boosters, Falcon Heavy Flight 2’s side boosters were subjected to a uniquely gentle reentry thanks to a lower velocity stage separation. As such, they should be easier to turn around than most, but given that the boosters are also acting as partial pathfinders for the reuse of actual Falcon Heavy hardware, they are unlikely to break any records.

Sadly, the first Falcon Heavy Block 5 center core – B1055 – was toppled in high seas while still aboard drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY), cutting short any possibility of future reuses of the thoroughly scorched booster. For unknown reasons, be it an unrelated USAF requirement or SpaceX simply choosing caution, plans already accounted for a new center core flying on STP-2, although both Arabsat 6A side boosters were to be reused. Believed to be B1057, that new Falcon Heavy center core completed its Texas acceptance testing in late April and shipped to Cape Canaveral, Florida soon after.

An Air Force first

Aside from offering a chance for SpaceX to tie its 72-day Falcon 9 turnaround record twice, STP-2 has unexpectedly become a keystone of the US military’s interest in certifying flight-proven rockets for military launches. The USAF has described the reuse of Falcon Heavy boosters on STP-2 as a step forward for all future reusable launch vehicles, but the reality is that SpaceX is and will remain the only player in town until 2022 at the earliest. The next closest entrant – Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket – is unlikely to be ready for its launch debut before late ’21 or early ’22. ULA’s “SMART” reuse of Vulcan rocket engine sections is unlikely to be ready before the mid-2020s, likely 2024-2026.

SpaceX, however, has already reused Falcon 9 boosters more than 20 times on orbital-class missions, and the frequency of reuse is only likely to increase with the introduction of the final major Falcon 9 and Heavy upgrade, known as Block 5. Designed with a nominal lifespan of 10+ launches, each booster can support a huge number of missions and also offers the potential to dramatically reduce launch costs down the road. Additionally, as noted by VP of Launch Reliability Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX firmly believes that reliability will come hand in hand with routine reuse, as each recovered booster can serve as a treasure trove of data. Thanks to reusability, SpaceX can fill recoverable boosters to the brim with cameras and gather full-resolution telemetry otherwise inaccessible for an expendable rocket.

Falcon Heavy Block 5 side boosters B1052 and B1053 rest at Spacex’s Florida Landing Zones after a flawless launch debut. (USAF – Alex Preisser)

The matter of launch costs is not a particularly significant concern of the US military, mainly a consequence of the incredibly disproportionate relationship between the cost of launch and the cost the military satellite payloads. An excellent example of this disparity can be found in SpaceX’s December 2018 launch of the USAF’s first GPS III satellite: SpaceX’s launch contract cost $82M, while the Lockheed Martin-built spacecraft aboard cost no less than ~$600M.

However, reusable rockets are quite plainly the future of space launch, evidenced by SpaceX’s meteoric rise and rapid cannibalization of the global commercial launch market. As a partial result, the survival of ULA – a Lockheed Martin-Boeing cooperative that builds the Delta IV and Atlas V rockets – is almost completely dependent upon military development and launch contracts. Blue Origin, however, is now offering the promise of an independently stable launch provider thanks to continual funding from owner Jeff Bezos, and reusability will be an absolute necessity if its massive New Glenn rocket is to succeed.

The first Block 5 version of Falcon Heavy prepares for its launch debut, April 2019. (SpaceX)

In short, the USAF is faced with a simple proposition: get behind reusable rockets or risk falling behind. SpaceX is more than happy to ease the conservative military branch into the new era, and Falcon Heavy’s STP-2 launch will be a major step in the right direction. Thanks to its reuse of two side boosters, Air Force officials will be able to observe the process of rapid refurbishment firsthand, providing information they will then use to develop certification requirements for flight-proven rockets. More generally, STP-2 will also act as a dedicated demonstration that SpaceX and the USAF will use to fully certify Falcon Heavy for military launches, hopefully ending Delta IV Heavy’s decade-long monopoly over military heavy lift.

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