SpaceX ready for first COTS launch

Falcon 9

Falcon 9 on the pad at Cape Canaveral for a static test firing earlier this year.

SpaceX is scheduled to make the first of three launches as part of its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement with NASA next week. NASA announced this week that SpaceX is planning to carry out its “COTS 1″ Falcon 9 launch on December 7, with a launch window stretching from 9:03 am to 12:22 pm EST (1403 to 1722 GMT); the company also has reserved launch windows on Wednesday and Thursday. Prelaunch activities, though, begin Friday with a static fire test on the pad scheduled for 9 am EST (1400 GMT) [now scheduled for 12 pm EST (1700 GMT)] that will be webcast on the SpaceX web site. A prelaunch press conference is planned for Monday at KSC.

The launch will be the second for the Falcon 9, and the first for the Dragon spacecraft (the inaugural Falcon 9 launch in June carried a boilerplate Dragon capsule). The Dragon will remain in space for three orbits before splashing down off the California coast. This flight is the first of three SpaceX is to carry out under their $278-million COTS agreement with NASA; the second, scheduled for next year, would send the Dragon to the vicinity of the ISS for rendezvous testing maneuvers, while on the third the Dragon would berth with the station.

SpaceX, though, is careful not to raise expectations too high despite the success of their June launch. Elon Musk told Aviation Week that he gives next week’s mission “maybe a 60% chance of success” overall, counting the launch as well as the successful reentry and recovery of the Dragon capsule. “The reason we’re doing this mission is to learn,” he said, saying there are “graduations of success” even if the mission doesn’t accomplish everything.

Update: the static firing took place at about 1 pm EST (1800 GMT) but was aborted 1.1 seconds into the 2-second test due to high engine chamber pressure, according to a SpaceX statement. A second static fire test is planned for some time Saturday. No word yet if this will affect the scheduled Tuesday launch of the Falcon 9.

Update: After an abort on an earlier test Saturday morning, SpaceX declared success with a second test around 11 am EST (1600 GMT) Saturday. Additional details about the test, and the schedule for the COTS 1 launch, are still forthcoming.

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