SpaceX launches Space Force satellite, prepares for next astronaut mission

Liftoff happened at 6:24 p.m. Thursday from Cape Canaveral

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – SpaceX had a lot riding on the launch of a military GPS satellite Thursday as it hoped to have resolved an issue discovered in some of its Falcon 9 rocket engines and clear the way for the company’s next launch carrying four astronauts.

The private company launched a satellite called GPS-III-4 for the U.S. Space Force and Air Force right at the start of a 15-minute window at 6:24 p.m. The brand new Falcon 9 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The launch was unusual for SpaceX because the company regularly flies its flight-proven rocket boosters but this launch was conducted with all new hardware.

SpaceX did land the new rocket booster on a droneship in the Atlantic Ocean about 9 minutes after take off, marking the 16th landing for the company this year. The booster will fly again with another GPS satellite for the Air Force and Space Force next year.

The SpaceX launch for the military was particularly important because the very next launch will be Crew-1, with a human payload of three NASA and one Japanese astronauts inside the company’s Dragon spaceship. That launch is scheduled for Nov. 14 from Kennedy Space Center launchpad 39A and will mark the second time astronauts launch from Florida with Elon Musk’s private company.

Recently, SpaceX swapped several rocket engines on at least four Falcon 9 rockets, including the boosters for the GPS-III satellite and Crew-1, after engineers found a red-lacquer like substance blocking a relief valve. SpaceX vice president of build and flight reliability Hans Koenigsmann said that the substance was the cause of a launch abort in October for the same mission.

SpaceX looked at all the engine startup signatures across the Falcon 9 fleet and found “similar early tendencies on the Crew-1 booster” as well as three others. As a result, SpaceX changed out two of the engines on the boosters for ones that have clean vent holes and that have been tested for the issue.

Koenigsmann said the investigation and the resolution “makes us a better vehicle and better engine going forward.”

NASA Commercial Crew Program manager Steve Stich said NASA wanted to see the Air Force GPS-III mission get off the ground before SpaceX launches Crew-1.

With a successful launch Thursday SpaceX is now one step closer to launching its second Dragon astronaut capsule to the space station.

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