SpaceX launch to be watched from the air—and perhaps also from the sea

Falcon 9 for CRS-3

The Falcon 9 rocket that will launch the next Dragon spacecraft is shown in its hangar in a photo released by SpaceX last month. This is the first Falcon 9 to feature landing legs on its first stage. (credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX is set to make another attempt to launch its Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket on an ISS cargo resupply mission. Launch is scheduled for 3:25 pm EDT (1925 GMT) and while the rocket is ready, weather remains the key issue. Forecasts continue to call for only a 40-percent chance of acceptable weather, and as of the publication of this post, the range was still “no go” because of weather. However, NASA officials said earlier Friday that they would be able to find a “hole in the weather” allowing the launch to go ahead.

When the launch does take place—be it today, tomorrow, or next week—it will be closely watched, and not just by spectators at Cape Canaveral and the usual radars and other tracking assets used for any launch. That’s because of SpaceX’s efforts to attempt to recover the vehicle’s first stage, testing maneuvers to slow down and “land” the stage, albeit over the open ocean and not on land.

“When they do those braking maneuvers to come back and land on the surface of the ocean, those braking maneuvers will be supersonic thruster firings, which will be very similar to what we’ll have to do for braking for a large mass going into Mars,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, in a presentation to a committee of the NASA Advisory Council on Monday, before that afternoon’s SpaceX launch attempt was scrubbed.

He said NASA’s Langley Research Center would be flying three aircraft to observe those maneuvers, collecting data to incorporate into their Mars technology developments. “So we’re actually getting data tonight to help us inform and get us ready for the entry, descent, and landing challenge of going to Mars,” he said. It wasn’t clear if the aircraft would also be on station for the launch today, given the weather conditions.

While NASA watches from the air, the Russians may be watching from the sea. The Russian vessel Nikolay Chiker has been lurking in the waters off the coast from Cape Canaveral, the blog The Aviationist reported Thursday, appearing in March for earlier launch attempts and returning in time for the latest attempts. Some speculate the ship is there to monitor the Falcon 9 launch and stage recovery attempt, although it could be coincidental with other efforts, such as monitoring naval bases.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk knows the Russian vessel is there, and whimsically asks if they pitch in:

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