SpaceX’s next Falcon Heavy launch slips into 2021

SpaceX's first dedicated Falcon Heavy launch for NASA is a step closer after the asteroid-exploring payload was powered on for the first time. (SpaceX)

SpaceX’s next Falcon Heavy launch – set to be the rocket’s fourth overall – has slipped several months into 2021 according to the vice commander of the US Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (USAF SMC).

Known as AFSPC-44 (now USSF-44), the nature of Falcon Heavy’s next payload remains a mystery. Headed to geostationary orbit, the satellite will likely be involved in military satellite communications, possibly including espionage (also known as signals intelligence or SIGINT). Technically, the USSF-44 mission includes two separate satellites and at least two additional rideshare payloads and will weigh roughly 3.7 metric tons (~8200 lb) at launch.

When the contract was announced, Falcon Heavy was expected to launch USSF-44 no earlier than (NET) Q4 2020. By April 2020, that target was closer to late November or December. Now, four months after that report, Brigadier General Jason Cothern says that SpaceX’s next Falcon Heavy launch is scheduled NET February 28th, 2021.

The delay doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Based on public observation of SpaceX’s Falcon booster production and testing, requiring thousands of miles of extremely conspicuous highway transport, it was already clear that the mission was unlikely to launch this year. Of the six first stages spotted in transport over the last nine months, all were clearly Falcon 9 boosters and lacked any of the telltale parts that distinguish Falcon Heavy side and center boosters.

The two SpaceX boosters spotted most recently were clearly Falcon 9 first stages. (D. Stamos)

The most recent ‘core spottings’ – a new Falcon 9 booster headed West after acceptance testing and another preparing for acceptance testing in Texas late last month – all but confirmed that USSF-44 was significantly delayed. Since mid-2019, SpaceX has intentionally slowed down Falcon booster production to focus on the higher-volume production of expendable hardware (fairings and second stages). While the company could technically complete boosters every two weeks if its feet were put to the coals and has generally averaged 10 per year, that figure has dropped closer to 6-8 boosters per year over the last ~18 months.

Coupled with a report that all three of the USSF-44 Falcon Heavy rocket’s boosters would be brand new, the lack of sightings in the wild implied that has yet to ship even one of those complex rockets to McGregor, Texas for acceptance testing. Based on preparations for Falcon Heavy’s April 2019 Block 5 launch debut, the process of testing three new Falcon boosters singlehandedly takes at least three months. Additionally, all three of the Arabsat 6A mission’s new Falcon Heavy boosters arrived in Florida a full two months before launch.

Falcon Heavy Block 5 boosters B1052, B1053, and B1055 took about two months to arrive in Florida and another two months to roll out to the launch pad. (Pauline Acalin)

In other words, given that a brand new Falcon 9 booster rolled out of SpaceX’s Hawthorne, CA factory on August 24th and that said factory isn’t really set up for concurrent booster completion, it would take unprecedented feats of manufacturing and testing for Falcon Heavy Flight 4 to be ready to launch less than four months from now (around the turn of the New Year).

In fact, even under the assumption that the next three boosters on SpaceX’s factory assembly line are all for Falcon Heavy Flight 4, the new February 2021 launch date is going to be a tight deadline. There is no evidence that SpaceX production delays are to blame for the USSF-44 launch delay and the coronavirus-related disruption of satellite production is equally – if not more – likely. Either way, SpaceX’s fourth Falcon Heavy launch will have to wait a few extra months. Barring a surprise mission over the next six months, Falcon Heavy Flight 4 will also be SpaceX’s first operational launch directly to geostationary orbit (GEO).

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