Space X set to launch on Saturday May 19

By Phil Plait | May 14, 2012 9:31 am

The private company Space X is set to launch its Falcon 9 rocket with the Dragon space capsule to the International Space Station on Saturday, May 19, with a backup launch date of May 22.

The launch is set for 04:55 a.m. Eastern time, which is 09:55 08:55 UTC — there’ll be a live webcast at Space X’s site and no doubt NASA TV will carry it as well. They have what’s called an "instantaneous launch window", which means if they don’t launch right on time they can’t just wait a few minutes and try again; they’ll have to go to their backup date. The reason for this is the vagaries of orbital dynamics. The space station is circling the Earth, the planet is rotating underneath it, and the rocket itself has a certain amount of thrust to get Dragon into orbit so it can catch up to ISS. All this adds up to a single Go/No Go decision at the appointed time.

If all goes well, it’ll launch on Saturday, and then the Dragon will take a day to match orbits with ISS. It will undergo a series of tests, including a pass only 2 or so kilometers from the station, to make sure all the controls are OK. If it checks out, it’ll approach close enough for the astronauts on ISS to grab it with the robotic arm, and they’ll pull it in for docking. The Dragon has some cargo for them (supplies and scientific experiments) which they’ll offload, and then the capsule will remain docked for a week and a half, during which time it will be loaded with cargo to bring back to Earth. After that, it undocks, pulls away, does a de-orbit burn, and then comes back to Earth in the Pacific, where it will be retrieved.

This launch will be the second demonstration flight for Space X, proving to NASA they can do this. NASA has money for private venture to do various task — in the case of Space X, there’s about $400M waiting for them if the flight’s successful. And as I’ve said before, whether it’s Space X or a different company, I love the idea that re-supply flights and such are done by commercial ventures. NASA should be in the business of innovating, and let private companies deal with the more routine stuff.

As far as Space X’s statements about all this go, I have to say, I rather liked this part of the press kit:

Pushing the Envelope, Success is Not Guaranteed

Demonstration launches are conducted to determine potential issues so that they might be addressed and – by their very nature – carry a significant risk. All spaceflight is incredibly complicated, and this flight introduces a series of new challenges – it is only the third flight of the Falcon 9 rocket, the second of the Dragon capsule, and the first for a number of all-new components necessary to berth with the International Space Station. If any aspect of the mission is not successful, SpaceX will learn from the experience and try again.

I think this statement is pretty forthright — imagine NASA saying that before a Shuttle launch! — so I give them credit for that. I imagine it could also be interpreted as trying to make an excuse for a problem before the launch… which honestly, it is. But I think it’s a good idea to get this out in the open now, before the launch. I hear a lot of grumbling about delays; this flight has been postponed many times. But remember, the Shuttle launches suffered constant delays, and this is the first time Space X is trying to do such a complicated mission. I figure, let them take their time. Better to do it right. Pushing schedules too hard blows up rockets.


Related Posts:

Happy 10th anniversary, SpaceX!
Will ATK beat everyone into space?
Rocket envy
Breaking: Private company does indeed plan to mine asteroids… and I think they can do it

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, NASA, Space
MORE ABOUT: Dragon capsule, ISS, Space X

Comments (27)

  1. All those related posts are actually starting to give me a warm fuzzy about the future of humanity in space (not just the US, but all people). Add in many of the other companies that are working at launch capability and space based industry, and it’s getting to be a much larger field than I had fist thought.

    Good luck Space X (and good luck to all your competitors too!).

  2. just a bit of extra info on why the launch window is instantaneous. It’s because this particular mission is very propellant intensive: to reassure NASA that the Dragon is safe to visit the ISS, they need to fly the Dragon close to the station, then retreat, then advance, then go around, then advance, all while still having a little bit of propellant in case they need to try again. Future missions shouldn’t be as propellant intensive and so the launch windows will unlikely be instantaneous.

  3. gopher65

    Blowing up rockets is easy. Successful missions are hard. I’m not worried about delays from any rocket company… provided they have the operating capital on hand to survive the delays. That’s not a given for all companies.

  4. Ray Bellis

    Kinda reminds me of Star Trek: First Contact, when Zephraim Cochrane had to get his launch just right to ensure he caught the attention of the passing Vulcans… ;)

  5. Mark Keisling

    Launch time is 8:55 UTC, 4:55 Eastern Daylight Time.

  6. NASA has managers, Space-X has engineers. A manager alters what a clever man says into nonsense he can enforce (e.g., NOAA-N Prime’s oopsie – no mention of bolts in the operations manual; technicians were only following orders). Godspeed, Space-X.

  7. gopher65

    Uncle Al: Wasn’t that mishap caused by Lockheed Martin workers, not by NASA or NOAA?

  8. Ameriman

    How exciting…

    After 40 years of watching NASA manned space go nowhere, do nothing, no new manned space technology/exploration/science…. while wasting $500 billion on boondoggles like the unaffordable/unsustainable Shuttle, useless ISS, failed/canceled Constellation…

    American private enterprise has produced new technology, price/performance breakthroughs, making progress…

    Godspeed Spacex.

  9. Jay Fox

    Back in the “Bad old days” rockets blew up a lot. Every country that has tried, has failed at least once. They keep trying, and eventually succeed. Even some “established” programs continue to have problems. Someone once said “Space is hard.” It certainly is.

    That SpaceX has gotten this far without a major failure is remarkable. Possibly a first?

    One wonders if keeping the entire program under one “private” roof has anything to do with their success. The buck eventually stops somewhere within, with no one to pass the blame (if something goes wrong) to. Also, every one is working toward a common, complete goal, rather than part of something that has to work with “someone else’s ” part of something. So they are all working in the same units, for example. Communication just has to be easier.

    Their biggest hurdle might be actually hooking up with that “someone else’s” part up there, the ISS. Just getting there is only half the problem.

  10. gopher65

    Jay Fox… SpaceX has had *three* major failures (3 rockets fail) out of only 7 launches. Those were the first 3 rockets they tried to launch, after which all launches have achieved their primary mission.

    They’ve also had several “minor” failures. In fact, I believe they’ve only had 2 of their 7 launches go off without a hitch (IE, rocket worked perfectly after launch).

    However, none of that is unexpected. Their current rockets are all still in testing, and both minor and major issues will crop up. That’s normal.

  11. CB

    in the case of Space X, there’s about $400M waiting for them if the flight’s successful

    Imagine that — paying contractors for success!

  12. Dragonchild

    The reason why NASA shouldn’t be doing “routine” stuff is because the organization is set up to do things “once”, not cost-optimized production runs. Looks like SpaceX is learning that the hard way. For all the issues NASA has, consider that their mission entails constantly doing stuff no one’s ever TRIED before, with limited resources. That means a lot of competing bids, nasty meetings, frustrating delays, and expensive one-off equipment. A 2% failure rate for a commodity product wouldn’t make most people flinch. A single component failure (and rockets have a lot of components) on a space mission can get people killed. No one likes bureaucracy but because so many things can go wrong, accountability is critical for future successes, which invariably results in a lot of administration. Things certainly go faster if they’re not documented but that makes failure analysis for something as massively complex as a space mission damn near impossible. Unfortunately, that administrative overhead is precisely what makes NASA seem inefficient to its critics.

  13. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Waiting with bated engines…

    there’s about $400M waiting for them if the flight’s successful.

    No, AFAIK SpaceX has been paid while passing milestones, in order for COTS companies to have more money available for development. 3 milestones remaining out of some 30-40 means 15 MUSD left.

    But they need this to start on the contracted cargo deliveries, so the pressure is on!

    I hear a lot of grumbling about delays; this flight has been postponed many times. But remember, the Shuttle launches suffered constant delays, and this is the first time Space X is trying to do such a complicated mission.

    The real comparison would be an equally complicated semi-automatic berthing cargo transport (as the fully automated is actually easier I hear, no drift position for grappling). The likewise berthing HTV was delayed 6 (six!) years for reason of similar control software alone, I hear (but haven’t verified yet).

    Also, I believe of the earlier 2 year delay between 2008 and 2010 milestones, nearly half of it could be caused by interruption of payment from Nasa which in turn was caused by budgetary reasons. If so, blame US congress for that delay, not SpaceX.

  14. Grand Lunar

    I hope there are no more delays.
    It’s time for private spaceflight to show off it’s stuff, and get us back to using our own spacecraft.

    I hope the other companies do just as well as SpaceX (not too excited about the Liberty rocket, though).

  15. Ponteaus

    “I think this statement is pretty forthright — imagine NASA saying that before a Shuttle launch! — so I give them credit for that.”

    Of course NASA couldn’t say this before a shuttle launch, and SpaceX won’t be able to say it before any manned Dragon capsule launches. You can only admit the possibility of failure for unmanned missions.

  16. Kurt Erlenbach

    I will be standing in the street out in front of my house looking to the east, hoping for the very best for this launch, and watching it go. While I can’t say that all the hopes of Florida’s Space Coast are riding on this mission, there are an awful lot of people around here with a lot riding on the success of this mission. A successful launch will be reported in a small article somewhere inside your Sunday paper (if anyone still reads the Sunday paper), but it will be very big news around here.

  17. Davros

    it is launching on my birthday
    cool

  18. Messier Tidy Upper

    Best wishes for SpaceX having a successful, smooth and safe launch. Go Dragon, go! :-)

    I hope to be watching online (or on TV if they screen that here) although I could also be out at the time – have to see when it is South Aussie~time~wise.

    @15. Kurt Erlenbach :

    A successful launch will be reported in a small article somewhere inside your Sunday paper (if anyone still reads the Sunday paper?)

    Yep. [Raises hand.] I still read the newspaper most days of the week including Sunday. ;-)

    @14. Ponteaus :

    “I think this statement is pretty forthright — imagine NASA saying that before a Shuttle launch! — so I give them credit for that.”
    Of course NASA couldn’t say this before a shuttle launch, and SpaceX won’t be able to say it before any manned Dragon capsule launches. You can only admit the possibility of failure for unmanned missions.

    Yet they might as well – because we all know, don’t we that it always remains the reality.

    I have always understood that space travel – like motor-racing and mountaineering and exploration generally can be a dangerous business.

    There’s always the chance of failure and always a risk to lives.

    Its well worth taking the risk. Without taking some risks we go nowhere and do nothing that’s really worth doing. And we die all the same. We just live less full lives by playing it too safe and cowardly. :-(

  19. Nigel Depledge

    Jay Fox (8) said:

    That SpaceX has gotten this far without a major failure is remarkable. Possibly a first?

    Didn’t they have a rocket explode during a ground test and kill some of their staff?

    I’d call that a major failure.

  20. Nigel Depledge

    CB (10) said:

    Imagine that — paying contractors for success!

    IIUC, this is how most business is conducted in Japan. You don’t contract for a piece of work to be done – you contract for a result.

  21. @ Nigel Depledge
    “Didn’t they have a rocket explode during a ground test and kill some of their staff?”

    That was Scaled Composites, who were working on the new rocket for their SpaceShipTwo for Virgin Galactic.

  22. Nevermark

    “NASA should be in the business of innovating, and let private companies deal with the more routine stuff.”

    That statement doesn’t even make sense. It is the private company that is innovating and figuring out how to make space travel efficient, not NASA. SpaceX is moving into the gap left by the retired space shuttle while NASA plans but has not delivered.

    Read up on SpaceX. It is planning to put people on Mars, and eventually for less than it costs to put someone in orbit today, by creating reusable rocket technology. Fuel costs are a fraction of the cost of the equipment.

  23. Brian Too

    @22. Nevermark ,

    Re: “That statement doesn’t even make sense.”

    Actually it does. NASA missions are (ideally) one-offs or rarities. Low Earth Orbit missions are hardly that anymore. Where SpaceX can innovate is in terms of assemblages of technology, some point technologies, process control, management oversight, and so forth.

    However the ‘process control’ ought to be highlighted. Process control plays a much smaller role in a one-off mission. During repetitious activities, process control comes into play big time, at least if you wish to perform the activity with high quality and low cost.

    LEO missions should benefit from statistical process control innovations. Not to disparage SpaceX, but think of making hamburgers, or cars, or iPhones.

    There is innovation at both NASA and SpaceX, but the innovation is likely focused in different areas, while still having some inevitable overlap.

  24. Steve & Connie

    We have the fortunate coincidence of being in Cocoa Beech the day of the scheduled launch on May 19 since we will be boarding the Disney Cruise ship Fantasy in Port Canaviral later the same day. I hope to catch an early AM view of this historic moment in commercial space flight. Chances of actual launch that day are probably not very good but I will be out there in the hotel parking lot looking for it regardless. It is suprising how little media coverage has been about this revolutionary flight.
    Go SpaceX. Live long and prosper.

  25. khms

    It is suprising how little media coverage has been about this revolutionary flight.

    Yet here in Germany, it’s been in the news for a while now …

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »