A SpaceX rocket originally scheduled to launch a batch of Starlink satellites more than five weeks ago has suffered the latest of a long line of technical delays, aborting its Sunday launch attempt less than 90 seconds before liftoff.
Know as Starlink V1 L17 or Starlink-17, the mission is now – by far – SpaceX’s most delayed Starlink launch since the company began launching the spacecraft in May 2019. SpaceX has offered no explanation for the mission’s tortured, halting path towards flight, adding intrigue to what is now more than 10 back-to-back launch scrubs, aborts, and delays.
Over the course of Starlink-17’s endless launch flow, SpaceX has static-fired the fully assembled Falcon 9 rocket and Starlink payload twice. In the midst of the mission’s struggles, a Falcon booster failed to land for the first time in almost a year, throwing even more pressing problems onto the company’s plate and delaying Starlink-17 at least another 7-10 days.
Aside from what amounted to a non-answer blaming SpaceX’s Starlink-19 landing failure on “heat damage,” no official details from the company’s ongoing anomaly investigation have been released. In short, SpaceX has had a relatively rough six or so weeks and those following along on the sidelines have very little go off of.
Additionally, during Starlink-17’s ill-fated webcast, a SpaceX engineer revealed that the company would not be broadcasting live feeds from Falcon 9 B1049’s onboard cameras during the launch. The ambiguity of the comment made it impossible to determine if SpaceX was simply choosing to not show those views or if something was wrong with the camera downlink system, while the same engineer-turned-host did go on to state that “all systems are green” moments later.
No explanation for the sudden change – possibly the first webcast in years without live views from booster cameras – was given. Starlink-17 serves as a return-to-flight mission for SpaceX after Starlink-19’s failed landing, during which the rocket’s onboard cameras streamed what appeared to be clearly unusual and possibly off-nominal behavior early on in the landing process. Without even a hint of an official explanation, it’s difficult not to correlate those two extremely unusual events and conclude that SpaceX is intentionally redacting live booster camera views to avoid showing another second landing failure in the event that B1049’s eighth flight didn’t end as planned.
In SpaceX’s defense, that seems extraordinarily unlikely given the company’s willingness to air its failures (e.g. Starship, Starhopper livestreams) but it’s playing its cards closer to the chest than usual when it comes to offering at least the tiniest hint of an explanation for certain off-nominal events. Additionally, despite Starlink-17’s tortured history, SpaceX has already complete five orbital launches in 2021, leaving the company more or less on track to tie its record-breaking 2020 cadence (26 launches) even if delays remain common.