SpaceX, SES Ready for First Launch of "Flight Proven" Falcon 9

SpaceX, SES Ready for First Launch of "Flight Proven" Falcon 9

A successful static fire test of a SpaceX Falcon 9 today sets the stage for the company’s first launch of a reused Falcon 9 on Thursday.  The payload is the SES-10 communications satellite.  The Falcon 9’s first stage previously launched a cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA in April 2016.  SpaceX refers to it as a “flight proven” rocket.

SES-10 will be launched from Kennedy Space Center’s (KSC) Launch Complex 39A, which SpaceX leases from NASA.  The company continues to make repairs to Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), which is adjacent to KSC.  SpaceX leases that pad from the Air Force.  It was the site of an on-pad explosion last September during preparations for a static fire test of that Falcon 9, which was destroyed along with its payload, the Amos-6 communications satellite.  During a static fire test, a rocket’s engines are fired for a short duration while hold-down clamps keep the rocket attached to the pad.  Such tests are routine.

The launch is scheduled for 6:00 pm ET on Thursday, March 30.  The launch window is open through 8:30 pm ET.  The weather forecast is 70 percent “go.”

Falcon 9 static fire test March 27, 2017 at Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex-39A.   Photo credit:  SpaceX tweet.

Advocates of reusable launch vehicles argue that they will significantly lower launch costs compared to expendable launch vehicles where the hardware is not recovered.  That promise was not achieved with the only reusable launch vehicle to reach operational status so far — NASA’s space shuttle.  Refurbishing each shuttle orbiter and their space shuttle main engines (SSMEs) plus the solid rocket boosters required a “standing army” of NASA and contractor employees that kept costs high.  (NASA will use the 16 remaining SSMEs — or RS-25s — for the first flights of its new Space Launch System, but will not reuse them.)

All other orbital rockets in use today are expendable.   SpaceX and other companies, however, remain convinced that the economics of reusability will prove out. Blue Origin has conducted several tests of its reusable suborbital rocket New Shepard and Virgin Galactic’s suborbital SpaceShipTwo also is reusable.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said last year that customers willing to launch on flight proven Falcon 9 first stages would receive a 10 percent discount, but the price SES paid for this launch is not publicly available.  SES has been a strong supporter of SpaceX for many years and was its first commercial customer.

Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket.  The second stage is expendable.

SpaceX recovers the Falcon 9 first stages by firing their engines to descend back to Earth after they have separated from the second stage (which carries the payload the rest of the way into orbit).  The first stages land either on an autonomous drone ship at sea or on a pad at CCAFS, depending on their trajectory and how much fuel remains.

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