Yesterday was not National Hungover Day for everyone. After failing twice to launch its Falcon 9 this weekend, SpaceX succeeded the third time! Elon Musk’s company had a 57 minute window that started at 7:38 pm EDT to launch the rocket for their client, Intelsat. All eyes were on the Kennedy Space Center’s Pad 39A in Cape Canaveral, Florida last night.
The first two attempts on July 2 and July 3 were aborted due to automated countdown clock stoppage with 10 seconds remaining to launch. Falcon 9’s principal integration engineer, John Insprucker, explained in a podcast, “At T minus 10 seconds, the software does a series of checks to make sure Falcon 9’s is good to fly.” Unfortunately, a measurement did not match the pre-programed calculations.
However, we can say the Intelsat 35e Mission went very well. Approximately 32 minutes after launch, the satellite of the Luxembourg-based company was deployed. Weighing nearly 15,000 pounds, this is the heaviest satellite SpaceX has ever sent this high in orbit. In a press release, SpaceX said they “will not attempt to land Falcon 9’s first stage after launch due to mission requirements.” Indeed, the two-staged Falcon 9 burned all the fuel it was carrying going in geostationary orbit, more than 22,000 miles above Earth’s surface. The nine-engine first stage did not have enough fuel to land safely and took a destructive plunge into the Atlantic Ocean.
Thanks @INTELSAT! Really proud of the rocket and SpaceX team today. Min apogee requirement was 28,000 km, Falcon 9 achieved 43,000 km.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 6, 2017
The numbers behind the success
It looks like SpaceX’s mission to reduce the cost of access to space is going fine. We still have a long way to go before we get to drop our bags on another planet and become a multi-planetary species but space is definitely becoming affordable. (Kind of.)
On July 3, the company used its Falcon 9 rocket to send Bulgaria’s first communications satellite into orbit from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Once the satellite detached, the first stage of the rocket (the core of the Falcon 9 that contains the main engines and most of the fuel needed for launch) plunged back through the atmosphere. It then safely landed hundreds of miles from the launch site on SpaceX’s droneship “Of Course I Still Love You,” stationed in the Atlantic Ocean. Two days later – and this is when the story becomes really interesting – the very same, previously-flown stage of Falcon 9 was used to send 10 other satellites for Iridium from California. Once again, the first stage flew back to earth where it was retrieved on the droneship “Just Read the Instructions” in the Pacific Ocean.
In short, SpaceX launched 3 rockets in 2 weeks– 10 since the beginning of 2017. Not bad! And of course, it is all because of price. Clients rush to Elon Musk for he can launch a Falcon 9 for only $62 million. Keep in mind that as of December 2016, the American United Launch Alliance charged $109 million for an Atlas 5 rocket launch. It goes without saying, the company had to cut its prices after losing contracts – including one from the U.S. Air Force – to its new rival. Still, SpaceX remains more affordable. During a press conference, Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX, stated that customers can get up to a 30% discount when they buy a previously-used rocket. So yes, we are talking about launch for $44 million! SpaceX hopes to recycle the first stages at least 10 times.