Main Engine Cut Off

Falcon Heavy and the Tale of Two TELs

Chris Bergin, for NASASpaceFlight, on SpaceX’s upcoming launch of SES-11/EchoStar 105:

With this launch now confirmed as taking place on 39A, the timeline required to stand down this pad to allow for the Transporter/Erector/Launcher (TEL) to be modified for hosting the first Falcon Heavy mission places this maiden launch in December at the earliest.

The standdown for 39A is subject to the readiness of SLC-40, which is set to return to action following repairs after the loss of the AMOS-6 satellite last year. Engineers are still busily working on the new TEL that will host Falcon 9 launches from the Cape pad.

During Elon Musk’s IAC overview last week, it was again noted that SpaceX hopes to launch the new rocket by the end of the year. However, this is looking increasingly unlikely, not least based on new FCC documentation that appears to point to an additional switch of a Falcon 9 mission from the SLC-40 to 39A later this year.

Someone on the SpaceX Facebook group snapped a photo of the TEL at 39A last week, and in it, you can see that two of the six launch clamps that are needed for Falcon Heavy have been installed. This means that some of the needed work can be done between Falcon 9 launches—granted there’s been a nearly-month-long down period between the last launch and the next—but not all of it can.

As 2017 begins to look less and less likely, my mind starts to wander into 2018. How close will SpaceX be comfortable running the Falcon Heavy schedule up to Dragon 2 demo missions—with or without crew? Right now we’re looking at February for the uncrewed Demo Mission 1 (DM-1), April for the in-flight abort test, and June for the crewed DM-2.

If the Falcon Heavy schedule runs past January, I could very, very easily see Dragon 2 taking precedence and bumping Falcon Heavy deep into 2018.

And rightly so.

Falcon Heavy still has very few flights booked, and Dragon 2 has quite a few flights booked. Falcon Heavy’s priority has dropped quite substantially in the wake of the cancellation of Red Dragon and the redesign of BFR.

Furthermore, the political importance of Dragon 2 and its crewed flights cannot be overstated. One of the bigger lines of criticism directed at SpaceX right now is, “They haven’t even flown humans into space, and they are late on their Commercial Crew contracts.” Getting over that hump and confidently flying astronauts to the ISS will do much more to help SpaceX make progress on their grand ambitions than Falcon Heavy’s demo flight.