Started by NASA in 2006, the COTS program was designed to provide a foundation that private companies could build upon and develop systems for sending cargo up to the International Space Station (ISS). Out of the process emerged two companies who were given the task- Orbital Sciences Corp., or “Orbital” and Space Explorations Technologies or “SpaceX.” Following years of testing, development, some failures and many successes SpaceX came forward with a 158 foot tall booster it calls the Falcon 9. Burning the same propellants as the historic Saturn V moon rocket, RP-1 (a form of purified Kerosene) and liquid oxygen, the Falcon 9’s first stage sports nine engines and produces 854,000 pounds of thrust. The second stage has a single engine that also burns a combination of LOX and RP-1. That stage produces 93,000 pounds of thrust. Atop the stack is mounted the Dragon spacecraft, a capsule and service module combination that is designed to not only carry cargo, but to also one day carry astronauts. After a successful June 2010 test flight of the Falcon 9, SpaceX went on to pass NASA’s “COTS 1” milestone in December of that same year by orbiting and recovering a dragon capsule. The next two milestones were to orbit a Dragon spacecraft within about 7 miles of the ISS in “COTS 2” and to actually rendezvous with the ISS in “COTS 3.” SpaceX decided to save both time and money by combining both milestones into one mission “COTS 2/3” which is counting down tonight.
Perhaps the most important point for everyone to keep in mind here tonight is that above all tonight’s launch attempt is a test… period. Along with that sobering reminder two other facts hang over tonight’s effort like a lattice of doubt. First, due to rendezvous fuel constraints, the mission has an “instantaneous launch window” meaning that eve a delay of a single second in the terminal countdown will result in a scrub. Second is the fact that SpaceX has never before conducted a terminal countdown to a launch without a “hold” and a recycle. That combination has resulted in a large degree of pessimism among the press corps tonight- in fact, I suggested that we should start taking bets on a launch getting off without a scrub- there have been no takers.
Here in the press site the silence is deafening. Of course there is the ever present din of conversation, but missing is “the loop.” The constant chatter of the voices of the members of the launch team that was always openly broadcast by NASA during Shuttle launches. We’re not used to this silence, not used to this not knowing the details of what is happening as the countdown takes place. The cause of this silence is rooted in the nature of this new “commercial” space program. Private companies are exactly that- private, and as such most of what they do is protected by a proprietary firewall. In other words, they reserve the right to not have to tell the public a darned thing. Anything that does come out is also heavily censored by the company. This is simply how all private companies do business, no matter if it is the development of toothpaste or spacecraft- it is how a private firm survives in a competitive environment. We will simply have to get used to it. Largely, conflict here comes when hundreds of millions of tax dollars are being used to seed a program that needs wide public and Congressional support and the proprietary firewall is in use. Meanwhile all we have is “the voice of NASA” giving us sanitized updates on the countdown rather than live information. It is a throw-back to the 1960s when NASA’s Shorty Powers told the press all they “needed” to know. Finally at T-00:40:00 the loop comes alive. NASA and SpaceX have come to a compromise- a few blurbs of launch control conversation in the waning minutes of the count will give the feeling of how it used to be.
Thus the countdown clock keeps ticking tonight and as long as it keeps going the launch is still “GO.” Oddly, there is a lot more riding on tonight’s test as a result of those who fail to remember that this IS after all a test. COTS and its two providers are currently more than two years behind schedule, and the Congress has taken a high degree of notice. There are several failure scenarios that could take place tonight- some are easy to swallow and some could have deep consequences for SpaceX and COTS. In the event that there is a glitch in the count that causes a hold and thus expires the launch window, such a thing would be an easy delay to live with. Likewise, an ignition and on-the-pad shutdown also would be an easy glitch to live with. If, however, the booster needed to be aborted and thus destroyed in flight, raining kibbles and bits into the Atlantic Ocean, the results would devastating for SpaceX. Recent Congressional hearings have raised questions about the ability of these “commercial” operators to deliver in the manner that they have boasted. A few in Congress appear poised to, at worst, pull the plug on COTS or at least make funds harder to obtain unless some big successes are seen. Most of this appears to be based in the loss of the ideal of what rocket test flying is all about.
T-00:32:24 and outside of the press site the famous countdown clock ticks down with an amber glow in the haze of the night’s humidity, the historic Complex 39 launch pads sit inert in the darkness and in the grassy field where crowds normally gathered to watch America’s conquest of space, there is now no one- not one soul. The voice of NASA echoes hollow in the night, but the bleachers are empty- it’s actually spooky.
T-00:21:18 NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden comes in to meet with a crowd of “NASA Social” visitors who have been accumulating in the press building. They gather in the back of the room and chatter as they take photos. In less than four minutes, he is gone and the NASA Social folks disburse outdoors to watch the expected launch and feed the bugs for the next 20 minutes. The rest of us remain indoors writing and working.
T-00:08:14 NASA PAO reports that “The International Space Station is passing over Florida now.” A lot of us hustle outside and look up into the night’s sky, but we see nothing. Either the pass was too low to the horizon for us to see it, or PAO was late on their call. Six minutes later we head out to the field for the final countdown. Some find seats in the distant bleachers, but even there the rocket itself is below the tree-line and out of sight. A half dozen of us, however, find a spot where the trees have a low gap and the rocket itself is actually visible. Listening to the echo of the P.A. system we hear the count move toward zero, “This may actually go.” someone says. “Three, two,” NASA PAO counts, “one, zero…” There is a dim orange glow at the base of the Falcon 9, “and lift…” the voice tails off as the orange glow rapidly diminishes as does the launch window. “We have a cutoff” is the announcement followed by rapid checklists as the launch control team goes into the abort and safing procedures. The first report is that the flight computer was not “in start” but a later call says, “Abort, engine five chamber pressure high.” Later we are told that a fuel lean mixture caused the temp. in engine number five five to increase into the abort limit. The software did its job and shut down the booster on half a second before the hold-downs let go. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell stated in the post abort press conference, “We can’t blame the software people this time.”
We are done for the day, the instantaneous launch window has expired instantaneously. Yet the Falcon 9 is intact, it is in a safe condition, today’s test has found a glitch, the cause will be determined and fixed. That’s what test flights are for.