Following a reported bug with Falcon 9 booster sensors that triggered a launch abort on the morning of December 18th, SpaceX has mitigated those problems and is ready to try again, hopefully placing the first of 10 new USAF GPS III satellites into orbit shortly after a 9:03 am EST (14:03 UTC) liftoff on December 20th.
Aside from being the first time SpaceX has launched a dedicated USAF mission won through a competitive procurement process, the launch of GPS III Space Vehicle 1 (SV01) will also be the first time SpaceX has intentionally expended a new Falcon 9 booster since July 2017, as well as the first time ever that a Falcon 9 Block 5 booster will be expended without attempting to land.
Team is working toward launch of GPS III SV01 tomorrow, December 20. Weather remains a challenge; currently forecasted at 20% favorable during the 26-minute launch window which opens at 9:03 a.m. EST, 14:03 UTC.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) December 20, 2018
Standing vertical at SpaceX’s Launch Complex 40 (LC-40) pad, Block 5 booster B1054 looks undeniably incomplete or just off without grid fins and landing legs installed, like toast without butter or a Tesla with a V8 in place of its electric motors. The fact that Falcon 9 B1054 is a brand-new booster simply throws salt on the wound. However, the expendable configuration does serve as a reminder that, when it really comes down to it, SpaceX’s launch customers with as much sway as the Air Force ultimately have a major (if not final) say in the rocket’s trajectory.
If a customer demands an almost ridiculous level of redundancy, SpaceX likely has little to no say in that decision, even if it means that a brand new Falcon 9 Block 5 booster – designed to launch anywhere from 10-100 times in its lifetime – will have to be disposed of in the ocean after just one. While the performance-based decision to expend Falcon 9 appears to be far more of a security blanket than a practical necessity, it does still serve as a reminder that some exceptionally heavy payloads and/or high-energy orbits will inevitably preclude Falcon 9 or even Falcon Heavy from attempting booster landings. Down the road, major NASA or national security payloads will likely continue to demand expendable configurations, at least until BFR (Starship/Super Heavy) can take over from Falcon 9 and Heavy.
A sunny afternoon at SLC-40 — Following today’s scrub, SpaceX graciously let us photographers revisit the pad to check on our cameras ahead of tomorrow morning’s launch of Falcon 9 and GPS III. pic.twitter.com/7vzIDl9W9p
— John Kraus (@johnkrausphotos) December 18, 2018
Although SpaceX does appear to be serious Thursday’s launch attempt, the weather conditions are far from desirable thanks to the forecasted presence of “Electric Field, Cumulus/Thick Cloud, Disturbed Weather”, as well as the likelihood of strong upper-level winds near the Florida coast. With just a 20% chance that weather conditions will permit a launch and a brief 26-minute window of opportunity, there is little to no wiggle room for SpaceX to wait for a figurative break in the clouds, and another scrub seems extremely likely.
If the weather does force SpaceX to call off Thursday’s attempt, additional opportunities appear to be available on Friday (60% favorable) and Saturday (80% favorable). For now, however, Falcon 9 B1054 appears to have bought itself a few extra days to continue being an intact and (mostly) dry rocket. Catch the watch live at the link below.
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