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SpaceX Postpones Falcon 9/Dragon Space Station Supply Demo Flight

Satellite Technology

Satellite Technology Feature Article

January 17, 2012

SpaceX Postpones Falcon 9/Dragon Space Station Supply Demo Flight

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

In a short email on January 16, SpaceX (News - Alert) has announced the postponement of its space station resupply demonstration mission. Originally scheduled for February 7, the company is now working with NASA to establish a new launch date, but also said "We will launch when the vehicle is ready."  

Exactly why SpaceX is postponing the flight is unclear.   In its email, the company states, "In preparation for the upcoming launch, SpaceX continues to conduct extensive testing and analysis. We believe that there are a few areas that will benefit from additional work and will optimize the safety and success of this mission. "

This is the latest postponement for the NASA COTS 2/3 flight and there is likely to be plenty of second-guessing and rumoring around the latest delay.   SpaceX had initially been scheduled to put up a total of three demonstration flights for NASA to demonstrate its capability to launch its Dragon capsule, successfully operate in orbit and rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS) for berthing to deliver cargo and return experiments and other items back to earth.   

The first successful Falcon 9/Dragon flight took place in December 2010. Based upon that success, SpaceX sought to combine its remaining two COTS demonstration flights into a single mission -- plus carry a pair of ORBCOMM (News - Alert) satellites into orbit -- with a target launch date of November 30, 2011, but the demo flight was delayed due in part to a disruption in manned crew operations because of Russian Soyuz rocket problems. In December 2011, SpaceX and ORBCOMM decoupled the launch of ORBCOMM's satellites from the COTS 2/3 demonstration.

NASA had gone so far as to start issuing press credentials for the February 7 COTS 2/3 launch attempt before SpaceX indicated more study and testing were needed. The latest delay puts SpaceX and NASA in an awkward position; SpaceX has argued that since it is a commercial company operating its own hardware, it doesn't have to divulge full details of its problems to anyone but NASA. For its part, NASA has agreed with this stance, but NASA has also been clear that it considers a successful SpaceX commercial supply demo flight to ISS a major milestone in the post-Shuttle era and a vindication of its policies.

SpaceX's delay in launching its demonstration mission leaves open a possibility that Orbital Sciences (News - Alert) Corporation may be able to conduct its Antares/Cygnus ISS supply demo flight and berthing before SpaceX can get a Dragon berthed to the flight. An Antares test flight is scheduled out of Wallops Island, VA later in the first quarter of 2012 while Orbital's COTS demonstration mission is set for later in the second quarter of 2012. Since Antares/Cygnus is launched from Wallops Island, VA, it has fewer scheduling headaches than launching from the always-busy Cape Canaveral.

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Doug Mohney is a contributing editor for TMCnet and a 20-year veteran of the ICT space. To read more of his articles, please visit columnist page.

Edited by Rich Steeves

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