By William Harwood and CBSLA Staff
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (CBS News/CBSLA) – Running a day late because of a last-minute countdown glitch, an upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, a booster NASA is counting on to eventually launch astronauts to the space station, roared to life and shot away from the Kennedy Space Center on its maiden flight Friday carrying Bangladesh’s first communications satellite.
The towering rocket’s nine first stage engines ignited with torrent of fiery exhaust at 1:14 p.m. Pacific time, quickly pushing the booster into a hazy sky atop 1.7 million pounds of thrust.
SpaceX successfully recovered the first stage with a rocket-powered landing on an offshore drone ship. It was the company’s 25th booster recovery and its fifth so far this year.
This comes after SpaceX was forced to abort Thursday’s launch less than a minute before takeoff due to a technical issue.
“In the final minute of countdown yesterday, the Falcon9 flight computer did its last series of checks, came across an abort signal from a ground system relay, and stopped the launch as the vehicle is designed to do,” SpaceX Materials Engineer Michael Hammersley said Friday. “It turns out that this particular signal, is an artifact from an earlier test sequence that was completed successfully, but did not properly reset.”
It then confirmed that the Bangabandhu Satellite-1 had successfully deployed into orbit, which was the primary goal of the $245 million mission. Built by Thales Alenia Space, the Ku- and C-band satellite will provide high-speed data and television service across Bangladesh and nearby areas.
The flight also marked a major milestone for SpaceX. The upgraded Falcon 9 is the first in a series of new “block 5” boosters featuring major upgrades to improve safety, performance and reliability. The upgrades also will streamline ground processing and make it easier to recover and re-launch first stage boosters.
For the past several years, SpaceX has been developing the use of recycled rockets in order to cut launch costs and speed up flights. SpaceX launched its first ever recycled rocket in March of 2017. In June of 2017, it launched and successfully recovered its first-ever recycled capsule.
Last December, it launched its first reused rocket and reused spacecraft in the same mission: using a recycled Dragon capsule and a recycled Falcon 9 rocket.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk told reporters Thursday each block 5 rocket is designed to fly at least 10 times with no refurbishment between flights and even more missions with “moderate” servicing after every 10 launchings. Musk said a block 5 rocket could fly a hundred times or more if the program lasted that long.
“Our goal, just to give you a sense of how reusable we think the (block 5) design will be, we intend to demonstrate two orbital launches of the same flight vehicle within 24 hours no later than next year,” Musk said. “That will be truly remarkable, to launch an orbit-class rocket twice in one day.”
The block 5 is the last major iteration of the Falcon 9, and Musk said he expects some 300 flights, using 50 to 60 boosters, between now and when the rocket is retired in favor of SpaceX’s gargantuan “BFR” rocket, a launch system Musk says will one day carry people to Mars.
“This will be the last major version of Falcon 9 before BFR, and we expect this to be the mainstay of SpaceX business,” Musk said. “We think probably something on the order of 300 flights, maybe more, of Falcon 9 block 5 before retirement.”
In the near term, the company’s major goal is launching its customers’ satellites while demonstrating the block 5’s safety and reliability, proving to NASA and the Air Force that the upgraded Falcon 9 meets stringent government requirements to ensure the safety of astronauts and high-value national security payloads.
SpaceX holds a $2.6 billion NASA contract to build and launch a piloted version of the company’s Dragon spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the space station. Boeing holds a $4.2 billion contract to provide similar crew ferry services with its CST-100 spacecraft.
Both companies plan unpiloted test flights later this year, following by the first piloted test flights late this year or early next. Boeing plans to launch the CST-100 atop United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rockets while SpaceX will use the block 5 Falcon 9 for its crewed Dragon.
Many of the block 5’s upgrades are required by NASA before the agency will permit astronauts to take off aboard the crewed Dragon. Seven successful launches using a “frozen” flight configuration are required before the first piloted Dragon launch.
The block 5 upgrades include re-designed insulation at the top of the first stage and a tougher heat shield at the bottom to better protect returning rockets from the heat of atmospheric re-entry. A beefier engine mounting framework was added, along with improved avionics and redesigned landing legs.
The nine Merlin engines used in the first stage have been upgraded as well, increasing performance by 8 percent and thrust to 190,000 pounds of push per engine, along with turbine modifications to make the hardware more resistant to small cracks.
Perhaps the most significant upgrade is use of redesigned carbon overwrapped pressure vessels, or COPVs, that are submerged in the rocket’s liquid oxygen and kerosene tanks to provide the high-pressure helium used to pressurize the propellants and power the booster’s steering system.
A COPV failure during a pre-flight test at Cape Canaveral on Sept. 1, 2016, triggered a catastrophic explosion that destroyed a Falcon 9 and its $200 million satellite payload. The new COPV’s are “by far the most advanced pressure vessel ever developed by humanity,” Musk said. “It’s nuts.”
But with memories of the 2016 explosion are still fresh, SpaceX’s plan to load astronauts aboard the Dragon before the rocket is fueled for flight, a strategy known as “load and go,” has drawn sharp criticism from many NASA insiders, who have long favored loading propellants and letting those systems stabilize before putting a crew aboard.
Musk downplayed those concerns Thursday, saying “that issue is somewhat overblown.”
“It’s not a fundamental risk,” he said. “The top engineering minds at SpaceX have agonized over this, we’ve tested the daylights out of it, we’ve been in deep, deep discussions with NASA about this, and I think we’re in a good situation.”
Even so, if NASA managers cannot get comfortable with the new COPVs, Musk said “we can adjust our operational procedures to load propellants before the astronauts board. But I really think this is an overblown issue.”
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