Home / Science / The SpaceX Starlink launch gets a last second scrub, ULA the next [update: double scrub]

The SpaceX Starlink launch gets a last second scrub, ULA the next [update: double scrub]

To update: ULA canceled today’s NROL-44 launch attempt after the weather at the launch site got significantly worse. The next hit on the Delta IV Heavy rocket launch is now scheduled no earlier than 11:58 pm EDT (03:58 UTC), Tuesday, Sept. 29, just two hours after the launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 the fourth upgraded GPS III satellite of the US military.

SpaceX’s 11th launch of SpaceX’s Starlink of the year was canceled ~ 30 seconds before takeoff by bad weather, likely delaying the mission by a few days and leaving ULA’s latest Delta IV Heavy launch attempt next in line.

Scheduled to take off at 1

0:22 am EDT on Monday, Sept. 28, the 12th operational launch of SpaceX Starlink (V1 L12) almost made it to take off before the company halted the mission, prioritizing mission success above all else. Given that SpaceX’s Starlink program places the company in the unique position of being its launch customer, the decision to let a relatively mild weather breach delay a Starlink mission by at least a few days isn’t intuitively encouraging.

It’s no secret that SpaceX has become the most successful private launch company in history and a commercial force to be reckoned with, easily surpassing United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Arianespace to acquire the vast majority of the commercial launch market share. The Falcon 9 is well on its way to becoming the fastest commercial rocket in history to cross the 100 launch milestone, and SpaceX is already on track to regularly launch entire countries with over 20 missions per year. The biggest risk the company faces is undoubtedly complacency and a notorious trend known as “throwing fever”.

The first half of the Falcon 9 payload fairing flown twice is pictured here just before SpaceX cleaned Starlink-12. (SpaceX)

At the forefront of space flight, constant and thorough vigilance is ultimately the only thing standing between a reliable rocket or spacecraft and catastrophic failure. Perhaps the greatest threat to such vigilance is the somewhat understandable desire to avoid launch delays – a fact of life for the missile that nonetheless costs time, money and (for some) reputation. The term “launch” or “go fever” was originally colloquialized to describe the irresponsible managerial pressure to launch largely responsible for both catastrophic failures of NASA’s Space Shuttle.

Some (if not most) parts of SpaceX would almost certainly prefer to avoid launch delays. The fact that the company continues to accept delays in launching Starlink and adhering to the limits of the Falcon 9 strongly implies that SpaceX has found ways to prevent launch fever while continuing to push the limits of launch cadence and reuse of rockets. Starlink-12, for example, was originally slated for launch on September 17, but was delayed about 10 days by strong ocean currents before being blown away seconds before launch on September 28. Combined with the fact that SpaceX is technically free to accept more risk on its Starlink launches, the aggravated delays will inevitably test the limits of any organization’s determination.

The Falcon 9 fogs up the camera moments before a clean launch attempt. (SpaceX)

While the argument that SpaceX is technically the only direct stakeholder in Starlink missions is a bad faith argument that could easily be made to push for greater risk tolerance, it’s only true in a vacuum. Failure of the Falcon 9 during the launch of a Starlink would still have major consequences for all SpaceX customers, most notably delaying NASA astronaut and US military launches until a lengthy investigation into the accident is completed. SpaceX executives and managers involved in launch / rejection decisions clearly understand this and act accordingly.

Starlink-12 will likely be recycled for another launch attempt sometime after ULA’s next Delta IV Heavy launch attempt and likely after SpaceX’s GPS III SV04 mission for the US military, scheduled no earlier than (NET) 12 : 02 am EDT (04:02 UTC) and 9:55 pm EDT (01:55 UTC), respectively on September 29th. Watch ULA’s latest NROL-44 launch attempt in the company’s official webcast below.

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