FAA grants license for SpaceX Falcon 9 return to flight

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Updated Jan. 8 1:30 p.m. Eastern.

GRAPEVINE, Texas — The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has issued a launch license to SpaceX for the upcoming return to flight of its Falcon 9, although its planned launch has been delayed until no earlier than Jan. 14.

FAA spokesman Hank Price said in a Jan. 6 statement that the agency had reviewed and accepted SpaceX’s investigation into its Sept. 1 pad explosion. That accident destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket being prepared for a static fire test in advance of the launch of the Amos-6 communications satellite. With the report accepted, FAA then issued the license required for the launch of the first batch of 10 Iridium Next satellites.

“The FAA accepted the investigation report on the Amos-6 mishap and has closed the investigation,” Price said. “SpaceX applied for a license to launch the Iridium Next satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The FAA has granted a license for that purpose.”

SpaceX announced Jan. 2 that it had completed the investigation into the pad explosion, blaming the accident on composite overwrapped pressure vessels used to store helium in the liquid oxygen tank of the rocket’s upper stage. The aluminum liner of pressure vessel buckled and liquid oxygen pooled between the liner and carbon overwrap, which led to the failure of the pressure vessel.

At the time of the announcement, SpaceX said it had submitted its report to the FAA, but that the FAA was still reviewing it. Price said Jan. 5 that the FAA was still reviewing the report and continuing to work with the company.

The license, valid until January 2019, covers all seven planned Falcon 9 launches of Iridium spacecraft from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The license also authorizes SpaceX to attempt landings of the rocket’s first stage on a “droneship” in the Pacific Ocean downrange from the launch site.

The issuance of the license comes a day after SpaceX conduced a static-fire test of the Falcon 9 on the pad at Vandenberg. “Hold-down firing of @SpaceX Falcon 9 at Vandenberg Air Force completed. All systems are go for launch next week,” SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk tweeted Jan. 5.

When it released the results of its investigation into the September pad explosion Jan. 2, SpaceX stated that it was planning to carry out the launch Jan. 8. An Iridium spokesman said Jan. 6 that the launch has been delayed one day to Jan. 9, at 1:22 p.m. Eastern.

However, Iridium and SpaceX confirmed Jan. 8 that the launch was being delayed until at least Jan. 14 at 12:54 p.m. Eastern because of forecasts of high winds and rain at the launch site. “Bad weather the cause. Anti-rain dances didn’t work – oh well,” tweeted Iridium Chief Executive Matt Desch Jan. 8.

SpaceX, in its own tweet Jan. 8 announcing the delay, cited “other range conflicts this week” at Vandenberg in addition to poor weather for delaying the launch to Jan. 14. The backup launch date is Jan. 15.