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SpaceX Starlink launch suffers at last second, ULA next time [update: double scrub]

Update: ULA has scrubbed today’s NROL-44 launch attempt after the weather at the launch site significantly worsened. The next launch of the Delta IV Heavy rocket at launch is now scheduled for no earlier than 23:58 EDT (03:58 UTC), Tuesday, September 29, just two hours after a SpaceX Falcon 9 is scheduled to launch the U.S. military’s fourth upgraded GPS III satellite.

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

Scheduled to launch at 1

0:22 a.m. EDT on Monday, September 28, SpaceX’s 12th operational Starlink launch (V1 L12) almost made it take off before the company canceled its mission and prioritized mission success above all else. Given that SpaceX’s Starlink program puts the company in the unique position of its own launch customer, the decision to let a relatively mild weather breach delay a Starlink mission by at least a few days is inadvertent.

It’s no secret that SpaceX has become the most successful private launch company in history and a commercial force to be reckoned with that easily overtakes the United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Arianespace to acquire a large majority of the commercial launch’s market share. Falcon 9 is set to become the fastest commercial rocket in history to cross the milestone with 100 launches, and SpaceX is already well on its way to regularly launching entire countries with more than 20 missions a year. The biggest single risk that the company faces is without a doubt complacency and a notorious trend known as “launch fever.”

The first double-flying Falcon 9 payload fairing half is pictured here shortly before the SpaceX scrubbed Starlink-12. (SpaceX)

At the forefront of spaceflight, constant, exhaustive vigilance is ultimately the only thing that stands between a reliable rocket or spacecraft and catastrophic failure. Perhaps the biggest single threat to this vigilance is the somewhat understandable desire to avoid delays in launch – a fact of rocketry that nonetheless costs time, money and (for some) reputation. The term “launch” or “go fever” was originally coined to describe the irresponsible management pressure to start largely responsible for both of NASA’s catastrophic space failures.

Some (if not most) parts of SpaceX would almost certainly avoid launch delays. The fact that the company continues to accept delays in the launch of Starlink and respects the boundaries of the Falcon 9 strongly suggests that SpaceX has found ways to prevent launching fever while still pushing the envelope of launch damage and rocket recycling. Starlink-12, for example, was originally scheduled for launch on September 17, but was delayed ~ 10 days by strong ocean currents before being scrubbed seconds before launch on September 28. Combined with the fact that SpaceX is technically free to accept greater risk at its own Starlink launches, compound delays will inevitably test the limits of any organization’s decision.

The Falcon 9 dims the camera moments before a scrubbed launch attempt. (SpaceX)

While the argument that SpaceX is technically the only direct stakeholder in Starlink missions is a bad argument that could easily be pushed to increase risk tolerance, it is only true in a vacuum. A Falcon 9 failure during a Starlink launch will still have major consequences for all SpaceX customers, especially the delay of critical NASA astronaut and US military launches until a lengthy crash investigation is completed. SpaceX executives and executives involved in launch go / no-go decisions clearly understand this and act accordingly.

Starlink-12 is likely to be reused for another launch attempt sometime after ULA’s next Delta IV Heavy launch attempt and likely after SpaceX’s own GPS III SV04 mission to the US military, scheduled no earlier than (NET) 12:02 am EDT (04:02 UTC) and 21:55 EDT (01:55 UTC), respectively. Capture ULA’s latest NROL-44 launch attempt on the company’s official webcast below.

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