SpaceX finally gets a launch date

Exactly 366 days—one year and one day—after SpaceX flew its first Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration mission, NASA announced it had agreed to a date for the second flight. Speaking at the NASA Future Forum in Seattle Friday, NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver announced that NASA had agreed to a launch date of February 7th for SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, to be launched on a Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral. “Pending all the final safety reviews and testing, SpaceX will send its Dragon spacecraft to rendezvous with the International Space Station in less than two months,” Garver said in her speech in Seattle. “It’s great news for NASA and SpaceX together.”

As the press release announcing the launch date indicates, this will be, as SpaceX long desired, a combined “C2/C3″ mission incorporating milestones originally planned for two separate demonstration flights. The Dragon spacecraft will initially approach and fly by the station at a distance of a little over three kilometers (two miles) to demonstrate its systems and its ability to abort a rendezvous. If successful, Dragon will then closely approach the ISS, allowing the station’s robotic arm to grapple the spacecraft and berth it to the Earth-facing port of the station’s Harmony module. Later, the arm will undock the spacecraft, allowing to fly away and return to Earth.

Later at the Seattle event, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell indicated that NASA and SpaceX made the decision about the launch date just the day before. “We had some discussions with [NASA ISS program manager] Mike Suffredini yesterday to determine a launch date. We decided that February 7 was the right day to shoot for,” she said. “That really kind of focuses all the activities for the next 60 days. We’re thrilled to get there, we’re thrilled that NASA is letting us get there.”

The announcement puts an end to months of uncertainty about when SpaceX would fly its second COTS mission an uncertainty created in part because of discussions with NASA, and the other ISS partners, particularly Russia, about allowing a combined C2/C3 mission. (The delay, presumably, also allowed SpaceX to get its technical ducks in a row for its next mission.) With Friday’s announcement, one assumes all of the necessary international coordination has been resolved to allow NASA to set a launch date.

In an article in the latest issue of Space Quarterly magazine, I wrote an article (freely available here) about how the next several months would be “crunch time” for the overall COTS program, given the upcoming demonstration flights by SpaceX and the other COTS awardee, Orbital Sciences. A lot will be riding on those flights, not just for the companies, but for the future of the ISS as well as NASA’s commercial crew plans. We’ll soon see what the future of commercial spaceflight will look like.

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