Falcon launch delayed by one storm, as SpaceX gets caught up in another (updated)

See update below.

A second attempt in as many days by SpaceX to launch six ORBCOMM OG2 satellites was scrubbed again Saturday, this time by weather. Marc Eisenberg, the CEO of ORBCOMM, said that a lightning strike 18 minutes before the launch, which has already been pushed to the end of its window, violated a launch rule that requires no lightning strikes within 30 minutes of launch. ORBCOMM says on its website that they will try again at 5:30 pm EDT (2130 GMT), although others have reported a launch time of 5:24 pm EDT (2124 GMT). Weather, though, is not promising again, with only a 20% chance of acceptable weather.

The meteorological storm that kept the Falcon 9 grounded, though, paled in comparison to the storm SpaceX faced from the media, and in social media, for the lack of information the company provided. SpaceX said Saturday afternoon that it would not webcast the launch, even though they had broadcast Friday’s attempt. The company also hasn’t updated their social media channels: as of Sunday morning the last SpaceX tweet was from before Friday night’s scrub, while the last post to its Facebook page was from even earlier Friday. It did post two terse messages to its webcast page on Saturday, including one confirming weather scrubbed the launch attempt.

In addition to the lack of online coverage, SpaceX provided little information to the media covering the launch on site at the Cape, much to the frustration of reporters there. Florida Today called it the “Space Coast’s quietest rocket countdown in recent memory” and Spaceflight Now said that for “the first time since the end of the Cold War, a space launch from Cape Canaveral will not be broadcast to the press and the public.” (It also inspired a lengthy rant from one person trying to cover the launch.) There was also strong criticism of SpaceX’s lack of coverage on Twitter, even inspiring one hashtag: #FalconNein.

A SpaceX spokesperson told Spaceflight Now that there was “no special reason” for not webcasting the launch. “We’ve actually been ready to move away from the webcasts for awhile,” Emily Shanklin told the publication. “It takes a lot of resources but the main reason is these launches are becoming more routine and the full webcast isn’t really appropriate anymore.”

That strategy is contrary to those of other major launch providers. United Launch Alliance (ULA), the company SpaceX is sparring with for US government launches, regularly webcasts launches, even of classified missions (although in some of those cases ending the webcast long before payload separation.) Arianespace webcasts its launches of Ariane, Soyuz, and Vega vehicles. International Launch Services also webcasts its commercial Proton launches. So, SpaceX’s decision runs counter to most other commercial launch providers.

There is an understandable philosophical argument in SpaceX’s response: as launches do become more routine, it makes less sense to make a big media event out of them. We do not provide similar coverage to every aircraft takeoff or every ship’s port departure, for example. However, SpaceX is still far from doing “routine” launches: this launch will be just the third Falcon 9 mission this year, and it’s now increasingly unlikely the company will meet its goal of ten Falcon launches this year.

Even with a greater flight rate, it appears many people would be happy with something less than the full-fledged webcasts SpaceX has done in the past. A simple video feed of the launch, with the launch control audio but without other color commentary, along with some basic updates on social media and to journalists at the site, might have been sufficient. Now, however, the company has to do damage control after alienating reporter, as well as many people who would otherwise be supporters of the company. A webcast would be a good start.

Update 4:45 pm EDT: SpaceX posted Sunday’s launch several hours before the scheduled opening of the launch window Sunday afternoon. In an update posted on the company’s webcast page, it said the postponement was “to address a potential concern identified during pre-flight checks,” without offering additional details. The next opportunity to launch is on Tuesday, the company added. Earlier in the afternoon, SpaceX had indicated that, unlike Saturday, it did plan to provide a webcast of the launch, but the postponement preempted those plans.

7 comments to Falcon launch delayed by one storm, as SpaceX gets caught up in another (updated)

  • Jim Nobles

    This whole thing has a ‘something happened at the last minute’ feel to me. With their mortal enemy The Alliance starting a PR push it seems an unlikely time to try and fade from sight. Something happened.

    • LOL

      The web video team was at home with their family on the weekend because they didn’t plan for so many launch scrubs. OR there’s a conspiracy.

      Something happened indeed.

  • TruthBeTold

    Well now, where are all the SpaceX fanboys that say how “transparent” Musk and his company are? SpaceX has been hiding a lot of things about the particular launch. Maybe this is a good example of “You get what you pay for.” Orbcomm should have learned their lesson after the first FAILED SpaceX launch where their payload came crashing down to orbit!

    • Neil

      1. Musk and SpaceX have been more open regarding their developments than basically any company per se and yet they are a private organisation and beholden to nobody so transparency is not required of them as they have no shareholders to please or answer to.
      2. It was NASA that decided there was insufficient margin left after the engine failure that lead to the ‘test’ OrbComm satellite being placed in a lower orbit than desired.
      3. There are a number of public facts that refute your argument regarding ‘You get what you pay for’ comment.
      3.1 SpaceX have had 9 out of 9 successful flights with F9 delivering the primary payloads to the correct orbit. There have been slips but they occur in all launches no matter what organisation.
      3.2 Several commercial satellite companies have been very complementary of SpaceX and their cost structures and reliability. e.g. SES
      3.3 Recently IIRC it was the Director of Intelligence in the U.S. government or some such senior official who raved on about SpaceX cost impacts.
      3.4 ESA is scambling to ramp up the A5ME and A6 trying desperately to find ways to match SpaceX costs and failing I might add.
      3.5 SpaceX had developed Dragon Cargo capsule that has proven reliable and spaceworthy delivering 3 successful missions to the ISS and returning cargo safely to Earth.

      There are numerous other examples. Time to get off your soapbox and get your facts right.


      • D. Messier

        Mission rules are mission rules. You can’t blame NASA for applying them as agreed to prior to launch. It was SpaceX’s engine that blew out. The responsibility lies with them.

  • Gary Warburton

    Maybe Elon feels he`s putting his crews under too much pressure to perform. Full public exposure probably puts his engineers under a lot of strain. Maybe he wants to cool it until they reach their cadence and give crews a breather. Its a new rocket and there are bound to be a few kinks that have to be worked out. I do know that full public exposure is good for business and is one reason why the SpaceX`s manifest is full.

    • Neil

      Interesting thoughts. Hadn’t considered the publicity effect on the company and it’s employees but I would expect it to add some pressure to perform. Customers may not like extensive publicity but who knows, I’m certainly not one. This is a bit catch 22’ish. Publicity gets you exposure and helps influence decision-makers, public opinion, funding bodies perhaps. Lack of it tends to encourage rumour-mongering and other negative effects.

      However the web casts are back on so it was either a technical problem or SpaceX quickly reviewed their position and decided it was better to engage in this type of publicity as opposed to not doing so. Don’t know about the commentary. I’d settle for no speaking heads personally if we still get feed from the controllers, etc.


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