Falcon on LC-39A
A Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft rest horizontally on the pad at Launch Complex 39A in preparation for its Feb. 18, 2017 launch. Credit: Craig Vander Galien

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — SpaceX said Feb. 17 that, other than a technical issue with the upper stage of its Falcon 9 rocket, it is ready to perform its first launch from a historic launch pad here last used by the space shuttle more than five years ago.

In a press conference held near Launch Complex 39A here Feb. 17, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell also touched upon a wide range of other issues the company is facing, from its commercial crew program to efforts to send spacecraft to Mars.

Shotwell, with the Falcon 9 rocket behind her in the horizontal position on the pad, said engineers were looking into a helium leak in the rocket’s second stage, but was optimistic that the leak would be corrected in time for a launch at 10:01 a.m. Eastern Feb. 18 to send a Dragon cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station.

“I believe we’ve found it,” she said of the leak, saying efforts were underway to repair it. “As far as I know we’re going to proceed with the count.”

Other than the leak, SpaceX reported no technical issues with the rocket. Weather forecasts have also improved, with a 70 percent chance of acceptable weather at the time of the launch, with similar odds if the launch slips to Feb. 19.

SpaceX also received a commercial launch license from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration Feb. 17 for the mission. The lack of a license in the days leading up to the launch raised questions about whether there were problems that could delay the launch, but Shotwell said she was not worried.

“We normally get our launch license from the FAA pretty close to the actual launch itself,” she said. “This one was more work for everybody because it’s the first time we’re launching off of [Launch Complex] 39A.” That includes determining new roles and responsibilities versus Space Launch Complex 40, the pad SpaceX has used at Cape Canaveral owned by the U.S. Air Force.

The launch is also the first from Florida for SpaceX since a Sept. 1 explosion of a Falcon 9 at SLC-40 during preparations for a static-fire test. The vehicle returned to flight Jan. 14 with a launch of 10 Iridium Next satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Shotwell said SpaceX planned to ramp up its flight rate after this mission, ultimately seeking to launch every two weeks. “We just need to get flying, then you’ll start seeing hardware here every two and a half weeks initially, going to every two or so weeks after that,” she said.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell speaks outside Launch Complex 39A on Feb. 17. Credit: Craig Vander Galien

On Feb. 15, Iridium announced its next launch of 10 satellites, previously planned for mid-April, would be moved to mid-June because of “a backlog in SpaceX’s launch manifest as a result of last year’s September 1st anomaly.” Shotwell said Iridium agreed to the delay “to fill in the queue of folks that have been waiting for a flight since we were down last September.”

SpaceX will be using LC-39A for all its East Coast launches until repairs to SLC-40 are completed, which Shotwell estimated to be in June. At that point, LC-39A will be prepared for the first Falcon Heavy launch, scheduled for this summer, with commercial launches shifting back to SLC-40.

Shotwell added SpaceX needs to make upgrades to the pad to support crewed Dragon missions, including the addition of an access arm from the gantry to allow astronauts to board the spacecraft. That work, she said, will be done in time for an uncrewed test flight scheduled for late this year.

Speaking a day after a Government Accountability Office report concluded that it was likely both commercial crew companies would experience additional delays, pushing back their NASA certification until 2019, Shotwell insisted the company remained on track. “I’m confident we’ll fly crew in 2018,” she said.

Red Dragons and Mars
In the briefing, Shotwell revealed that SpaceX’s first planned Mars mission, a robotic lander called Red Dragon, will likely not be ready to launch in the spring of 2018 as the company announced last year.

“We were focused on 2018, but we felt like we needed to put more resources and focus more heavily on our crew program and our Falcon Heavy program,” she said. “So we’re looking more in the 2020 timeframe for that.”

Red Dragon is a precursor for SpaceX’s ambitious Mars plans, which company founder Elon Musk unveiled at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico in September. Those involve the development of giant reusable launch vehicles and spacecraft to carry up to 100 people at a time from Earth to Mars.

Shotwell said that, like Red Dragon, work on those concepts has been a lower priority as it works on near-term programs. “We need to finish the work that we’re doing right now,” she said, referring to development of commercial crew and Falcon Heavy. “Then you’ll start to see a shift in development teams at SpaceX.”

“A year or so is when we’ll start to shift focus, that’s my guess,” she said.

Dragon to ISS
Long before that, though, is this mission. The Dragon spacecraft launching on a mission designated CRS-10 by SpaceX and SpX-10 by NASA carries 2,490 kilograms of cargo. That includes several hundred kilograms of “late load” cargo added to the spacecraft while on the pad Feb. 17.

The bulk of that cargo consists of scientific payloads. The Dragon is carrying 732 kilograms of investigations inside the spacecraft. There is an additional 906 kilograms of external payloads mounted in the Dragon’s “trunk” section, including Earth science sensors that will be mounted on the ISS.

Dan Hartman, deputy manager of the ISS program at NASA, said at a Feb. 17 press conference that SpX-10 carries primarily scientific payloads given the state of consumables on the station. “We’ve got well above our reserve levels of food and water, so we’ve really dedicated this Dragon mission to the research,” he said.

Assuming an on-time launch, Dragon will berth with the ISS on Feb. 19 and remain there for 29 days before returning to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean off the Baja California coast.

At the briefing, NASA and SpaceX officials confirmed plans first announced last year to fly a used Dragon spacecraft on future cargo mission. Hartman said the next cargo mission, SpX-11, will use a Dragon flown on an earlier ISS mission, SpX-4 in 2014. “We have done a lot of work over the last year and a half or two” to study want would be needed to safely reuse a Dragon, he said. “Everything is looking good that the next Dragon mission that we’ll launch will be a reuse.”

Jessica Jensen, director of Dragon mission management at SpaceX, said that the Dragon was designed for multiple flights. The company developed “very thorough” inspection procedures for the capsule, including replacing some items. “While this capsule is mostly a reused capsule, there are definitely components that we looked at and said it’s actually going to be smarter to use a new component,” she said.

Hartman added NASA has started the process of looking to launch Dragon missions on Falcon 9 rockets with reused first stages, with a preliminary review scheduled to be completed in April or May. “It may not happen this year,” he said of launching on a reused Falcon, “but shortly thereafter.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...