SpaceX Delays IFA

Feature Image: Falcon 9 stands ready for IFA. (Image Credit: NASA)

CAPE CANAVERAL – Saturday morning, the stage was set for the In-Flight Abort test, the final test by SpaceX before beginning to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS. Then at 5:01 am EST, SpaceX announced that the flight was scrubbed for the day. Their reasoning was not due to conditions at the launch complex, but due to conditions at the landing area in the Atlantic Ocean.

With the cancellation, they opened a new launch window on Sunday, when the conditions actually have a higher probability of being unfavorable.

Launch Mission Execution Forecast for Jan 19 launch attempt. (Image credit: 45th Weather Squadron)

With a failure probability of 40-60%, this is a higher chance of success than on Saturday, which had a 90% failure probability. This is due to a high-pressure weather front that will be crossing Florida moving toward the southeast. These systems often bring lots of clouds and high winds, two things that always cause flight scrubs.

The main event of this flight will be the abort, which will take place at about T+00:01:30, and at an altitude of 21-25 km (13-15.5 miles). At the time of the abort, the SuperDraco thrusters will fire, taking the Crew Dragon capsule to an altitude of 43 km (26-27 mi). With a projected cloud cover at 20,000 feet (3.5 mi), the chances of actually witnessing the abort from the ground are fairly slim if the launch does proceed as planned on the 19th.

There is some rumbling among the space community that launch will most likely be scrubbed on the 19th, which will leave a potential of using the launch window for Starlink 3, which is scheduled for Tuesday the 21st. If that were to happen, the weather forecast is much more favorable, with an 80% chance of favorable conditions. There is also a real possibility that they scrub IFA until a later date and proceed with Starlink on the 21st. As of the time of this writing, SpaceX has not conducted a static fire on Starlink 3, which would normally happen a few days before launch.

Here is an awesome graphic from NASA showing the sequence of events for IFA:

As this is the last big test before SpaceX begins sending astronauts to ISS, any delay feels critical. However, it is heartening to note that these delays are called for good reasons. Safety of Crew Dragon, and the potential crew, is first and foremost.

With the failure of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner to reach the ISS in December, SpaceX is taking no chances at failure of this critical Crew Dragon test. Both companies are in an informal race to see which company will be the first to launch astronauts from US soil since 2011, when the Shuttle program ended. In the interim, NASA has relied upon Russia to get astronauts to orbit, at a cost of $86 million per seat. Starliner seats will run about $90 million per seat and Crew Dragon seats will cost $55 million per seat, according to NASA’s Officer of the Inspector General (OIG). Both companies have disputed those projected costs.

After the “off-nominal orbital injection” suffered by Starliner on route to the ISS, they completed all tests which could be run without docking, and safely brought Starliner home. They have since announced they would require minimal refurbishment after OFT, and the next Starliner launch will be crewed to ISS.

When IFA is conducted, it will be a fairly fun thing to watch. There’s a real potential that the booster will be ignited by the exhaust from the SuperDracos, which would mean a fireball-feast-for-the-eyes of those watching from shore, or out with Star-Fleet tours. Whether the booster ignites, or simply disintegrates, it’ll be fun to watch.