Liquid oxygen shortage squeezes SpaceX launch plans

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COLORADO SPRINGS — A widespread shortage of liquid oxygen linked to the latest wave of the pandemic could affect SpaceX’s launch schedule, a company executive said Aug. 24.

Speaking on a panel at the 36th Space Symposium here, Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, cited difficulties in securing supplies of liquid oxygen as one of its biggest supply chain concerns.

“We’re actually going to be impacted this year with the lack of liquid oxygen for launch,” she said. “We certainly are going to make sure the hospitals are going to have the oxygen that they need, but for anybody who has liquid oxygen to spare, send me an email.”

Liquid oxygen is one of the most commonly used propellants in launch vehicles. It serves as an oxidizer in combination with fuels such as liquid hydrogen, kerosene and methane.

Demand for liquid oxygen has soared in recent weeks because of the rise of COVID-19 cases caused by the delta variant. Hospitals use liquid oxygen as a source of oxygen for ventilators.

That demand has had wide-ranging effects on the liquid oxygen supply chain. In Florida, the Orlando Utilities Commission announced Aug. 20 that its weekly deliveries of liquid oxygen, used in water purification systems, had been cut by up to 50%. Officials asked city residents and businesses to reduce their use of water to avoid water shortages that could be caused by the reduced capacity of its purification systems.

Shotwell didn’t elaborate on the impacts of the liquid oxygen shortage on its launch schedule. The company has not launched a Falcon 9 rocket since June 30, an unusually long hiatus caused in part by delays in the production of new Starlink satellites with laser inter-satellite links. However, SpaceX is scheduled to end that break with the Falcon 9 launch of a cargo Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station Aug. 28 from the Kennedy Space Center.

Other companies are seeing impacts of the liquid oxygen shortage. In a tweet after the conference session, Tory Bruno, chief executive of United Launch Alliance, said that the government contractor that supplies nitrogen for its launch facilities at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California is now working on addressing the liquid oxygen shortage in Florida.

That could impact plans for the launch of the Landsat 9 spacecraft from Vandenberg on an Atlas 5, currently scheduled Sept. 16. “Working that situation now,” Bruno said.