SpaceX settles on Thursday for first Falcon 9 launch of 2021

After a few days of delays, Falcon 9 booster B1060's fourth flight is on track to be SpaceX's first launch of the new year. (Richard Angle)

After a few days of delays, SpaceX appears to have settled on Thursday, January 7th for the first of several dozen Falcon 9 launches planned in 2021.

Originally scheduled to launch as early as January 4th, SpaceX’s Turksat 5A communications satellite launch was “placed TBD due to mission assurance” on January 1st – an unfortunate catch-all euphemism often used by launch providers in lieu of any real explanation for delays. Regardless, Next Spaceflight reports that Turksat 5A will be Falcon 9 B1060’s fourth launch, a milestone the first stage (booster) has reached just six months after its first flight.

Despite the minor delay, SpaceX’s current target of four launches this month is still well within reach even though the slip exemplifies the uphill battle the company will face as it aims to achieve CEO Elon Musk’s goal of 48 launches in 2021. Weather is currently 60% favorable for SpaceX’s first launch of the year and Turksat 5A is scheduled to lift off no earlier than 8:28 pm EST on January 7th (01:28 UTC, 8 Jan).

Unfortunately, SpaceX’s first launch of the new year has been steeped in unprecedented controversy for the company, including the first-ever instance of mass-protests at its Hawthorne, California factory and headquarters. The reason: Turksat 5A, while partially meant for civilian communications, will also support the Turkish military, which supported Azerbaijan after the country – unprovoked – reignited a long-simmering conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region in September 2020.

Stemming from events that transpired over the last several centuries, Armenian-Azeri conflict and Turkish involvement are extraordinarily complex and messy. In the 1910s and 1920s, Turkey (then the Ottoman Empire) infamously committed atrocities against Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek communities within its occupied territory in a process of “Turkification”, systematically killing 1-3 million people in what would ultimately be labeled genocide. In a separate but related conflict, Turkey eventually chose to support Azerbaijan’s claim to the ethnically (75-90%) and historically Armenian territory, backing the country against Armenia in the first Nagorno-Karabakh War in the 1990s.

Azerbaijan reignited the conflict in 2020, resulting in the deaths of at least 6000 combatants and civilians on both sides and ultimately securing a substantial portion of Nagorno-Karabakh territory as part of a November 2020 ceasefire agreement. To an extent, Nagorno-Karabakh’s borders are now more or less back to where they were before the first war in the 1990s. While an avoidable loss of life is inherently deplorable, it’s extremely difficult to say whether Azerbaijan was justified but it and Turkey’s history of systematic and discriminatory hostility towards Armenians leaves little benefit of the doubt worth giving.

Ultimately, that cloud of ambiguity makes it hard to directly fault SpaceX for choosing to launch Turksat 5A or for its contracts to launch Turksat 5B and future domestically-built satellites. Additionally, if SpaceX should be criticized for willingly launching the satellite, Airbus – contracted by Turkey to build Turksat 5A – is at least as worthy of critique but has yet to be included at all in protest discourse despite the fact that Turkey’s production contract was publicly announced in 2017.

In the history of spaceflight, a satellite that is completed but never launches is all but unheard of, as the inherent bureaucratic and financial inertia behind a launch campaign mere months away from its scheduled liftoff is obviously immense. Even if SpaceX were to accept major financial penalties and back out of its contract, Arianespace, Roscosmos, or ULA would assuredly accept any replacement contract.

For protestors still set on making an impact, the shrewd move would be to redirect attention on future Turkish satellite projects like Turksat 5B, 6A, and beyond with the intention of killing contracts in the cradle – a far more tenable goal.

Stay tuned for more launch details as SpaceX nears its first mission of 2021.

SpaceX settles on Thursday for first Falcon 9 launch of 2021
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