SpaceX preps for Cargo Dragon, Falcon Heavy launches despite setbacks

The first Falcon Heavy Block 5 rocket lifts off from Pad 39A on April 11th. Both side boosters will be reused on Flight 3, also known as STP-2. (Pauline Acalin)

Despite suffering the loss of the first Falcon Heavy Block 5 center core and a catastrophic failure of the first flight-proven Crew Dragon spacecraft in nearly the same week, SpaceX’s core operations continue as usual to prepare for multiple launches in the coming months.

The echoes of the past week’s failures and ‘anomalies’ will undoubtedly ring for months to come but SpaceX now finds itself in a unique situation. Despite the imminent start of a major failure investigation, it appears unlikely – at least for the time being – that it will impact the majority of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches planned for the rest of 2019. Currently on the Q2 2019 manifest are Cargo Dragon’s 17th operational mission (CRS-17), the first operational Starlink launch, Spacecom’s Amos-17 satellite, the Canadian Radarsat Constellation Mission (RCM), and Falcon Heavy’s third launch (STP-2).

Spotted on April 20th, this Falcon upper stage is most likely bound for the launch of either Starlink-1 or Amos-17.

Cargo Dragon – CRS-17

Following an April 20th explosion that destroyed Crew Dragon C201, SpaceX’s next launch – Cargo Dragon CRS-17 – has likely just become the most important in the near-term. Although Crew Dragon shares almost nothing directly in common with Cargo Dragon, both spacecraft still do come from the same lineage, relying on the same propellant and Draco maneuvering thrusters, as well as similar plumbing (excluding SuperDraco pods) and many of the same engineers and technicians.

On the other hand, Cargo Dragon has never suffered a catastrophic anomaly on the ground or in flight, although SpaceX has dealt with a fair share of less serious issues throughout the spacecraft’s operational life. Further, following the August 2017 launch of CRS-12, every CRS mission has launched with a flight-proven Cargo Dragon spacecraft. In fact, it’s quite likely that the CRS-12 Cargo Dragon capsule is the same spacecraft that has been refurbished for CRS-17, as it is currently the only flightworthy capsule to have only flown one orbital resupply mission.

It’s unclear which Falcon 9 booster has been assigned to CRS-17. NASA’s agreement with SpaceX for flight-proven boosters has been predicated on keeping those boosters ‘in-family’, so to speak, meaning that NASA will only accept flight-proven boosters if they have only flown NASA missions. The only booster that currently fits that bill is B1051, previously flown during Crew Dragon’s orbital launch debut on March 2nd, but B1051 has reportedly been assigned to SpaceX’s second Vandenberg launch of 2019 at the customer’s request. CRS-17 will thus likely launch on a new Falcon 9 booster (B1056). There is a chance that Crew Dragon’s catastrophic failure has severely contaminated the Landing Zone area with unburnt MMH and NTO, both of which are extraordinarily toxic to humans in even the tiniest of quantities.

Some launch-related questions may be answered in a NASA media briefing planned for 11am EDT, April 22nd. CRS-17 is scheduled to launch no earlier than 4:22 am EDT (08:22 UTC), April 30th.

Cargo Dragon capsule C113 and its expendable trunk depart the ISS after successfully completing CRS-12, September 2017. (NASA)
CRS-17’s fresh Cargo Dragon trunk is shown here with two major unpressurized payloads, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3 (OCO-3) and STP-H6, which will investigate communicating with X-rays, among other things. (SpaceX via NASA)

Starlink, Falcon Heavy, and more

Meanwhile, the Falcon upper/second stage (S2) spotted in the tweet at the top of the article serves as evidence of preparations for launches planned in May/June, as do a duo of first stage boosters spied during their own Cape Canaveral arrivals. All that’s missing to round out a busy week of SpaceX transportation is the appearance of one or several payload fairings, although CEO Elon Musk says that the company will try to reuse Falcon Heavy Flight 2’s fairing on the first Starlink launch.

Said Starlink launch – unofficially labeled Starlink-1 – is currently scheduled for liftoff no earlier than mid-May, likely making it the SpaceX mission that will follow CRS-17. The most likely Falcon 9 S1 candidate is the thrice-flown Block 5 booster B1046, a move that would retire risk otherwise transmitted to customers. SpaceX has now flown two separate Falcon 9 boosters (B1046 and B1048) three times without major issue, meaning that the fourth flight of the same booster (and beyond) will be new territory for reuse at some level.

B1046.3 landed aboard drone ship Just Read The Instructions after a successful third launch, December 2018. (SpaceX)
Falcon 9 B1048 returned to Port Canaveral on Feb. 24 after the rocket’s own third successful launch and landing. (Tom Cross)

Beyond Starlink-1, SpaceX has the communications satellite Amos-17 and Radarsat Constellation Mission (RCM), both of which are understood to be targeting launch no earlier than (NET) early June. Finally, Falcon Heavy Flight 3 – carrying the US Air Force’s STP-2 mission – is scheduled to launch NET June 22nd, although some additional delays are probable.

From a business-as-usual perspective, the fact that Crew Dragon C201 failed during intentional testing on the ground means that it will likely be SpaceX’s least commercially disruptive failure yet. This could change for any number of reasons, depending on the conclusions drawn by the joint NASA-SpaceX investigation soon to begin, and it’s far too early to draw far-reaching conclusions. Chances are good that the impact to non-Crew Dragon launches will be minimal but only time will tell as SpaceX begins to quite literally pick up the pieces and start a deep-dive analysis of all data gathered from Saturday’s failure.

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Eric Ralph: Eric Ralph is Teslarati's senior spaceflight reporter and has been covering the industry in some capacity for almost half a decade, largely spurred in 2016 by a trip to Mexico to watch Elon Musk reveal SpaceX's plans for Mars in person. Aside from spreading interest and excitement about spaceflight far and wide, his primary goal is to cover humanity's ongoing efforts to expand beyond Earth to the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere.
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