SpaceX has successfully launched its first rocket in six months in a dramatic return-to-flight mission some considered a make-or-break operation for the young rocket company.
Orbcomm is a publicly traded (Nasdaq: ORBC) provider of global messaging and asset-monitoring services powered by a constellation of communications satellites.
While Orbcomm described its next-gen OG2 satellites as allowing “enhanced” services to its customers, SpaceX touted new enhancements to the Falcon 9. Those include 30 percent higher thrust, an improved stage-separation system and a larger upper-stage holding more propellant.
In a “secondary test objective,” SpaceX sought to recover the rocket’s first stage by landing it on a pad at Cape Canaveral. Initial indications were that the first stage recovery was fully successful.
The landing was historic, as no orbital rocket ever had been successfully recovered on land previously. Blue Origin recovered the launcher stage of its suborbital New Shepard spacecraft after a recent launch.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who notes reusable rockets are an important goal of the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company, said a one-day postponement from an original launch date of Dec. 20 was to provide for more favorable conditions for the rocket recovery. But Orbcomm attributed the delay to other factors, so the delay may have been prompted by multiple considerations.
“Upon further review of the static fire data, SpaceX has determined that an additional day prior to launch will allow for more analysis and time to further chill the liquid oxygen in preparation for launch,” the Fort Lee, N.J.-based communications company said in announcing the launch delay.
In any event, it’s a case of all’s well that ends well, and Musk and his engineering minions will breathe a huge sigh of relief. The Falcon 9 launch was the first for SpaceX since June 28, when a Falcon 9 exploded soon after launch in a failed cargo resupply mission for NASA and the International Space Station. A subsequent investigation blamed a faulty helium-tank strut.
On paper, the failure of that unmanned mission hasn’t hurt SpaceX’s relationship with the space agency, which last month awarded the company a contract to shuttle astronauts to the ISS. But observers had suggested there would be dire consequences for the company if its Orbcomm launch failed.
SpaceX rival Orbital ATK also mounted a successful return-to-flight launch recently, though it needed to use a rocket from United Launch Alliance to do so. The Dulles, Va.-based company was in launch hiatus following the October 2014 explosion of its Antares rocket shortly after liftoff in a failed ISS resupply mission.
So after a year of hand-wringing in some quarters about the perils of relying on commercial contractors for NASA launches, it’s likely the nation’s transition to outsourced space services will resume in earnest. SpaceX is gearing up to mount its first manned mission for the space agency in 2017 or 2018.
NASA has awarded Boeing two manned missions. The Chicago-based aerospace mainstay secured a first such contract in May and a second one earlier this week.
SpaceX has a huge fan base comprised of space buffs, engineering professionals and tech geeks — all of whom follow every development at the company with great interest. To cater to those interests, SpaceX provided video commentary before, during and after the launch.
“Let’s talk about the upgrades on the Falcon 9 — which was a really rad rocket to begin with,” a video presenter observed prior to the launch.
A crowd assembled at SpaceX headquarters found the launch — the 20th to date for a Falcon 9 — pretty rad as well. There were loudly audible bursts of cheers at each stage of the ascent, with the first-stage landing occurring about nine minutes after liftoff.
The Hawthorne crowd responded to the dramatic video image with cries of “USA, USA, USA!”
The coup de grace for the crowd came with word that all 11 Orbcomm satellites had been placed into orbit successfully.