COVID-19 oxygen demand delaying launches from SpaceX and ULA

Liquid oxygen, LOX, needed for rocket launches

A pandemic-triggered shortage of oxygen across the nation has rippled out to spaceflight companies like SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, officials confirmed this week, and is part of the reason for the Space Coast’s months-long launch drought, reports News 6 partner Florida Today.
A pandemic-triggered shortage of oxygen across the nation has rippled out to spaceflight companies like SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, officials confirmed this week, and is part of the reason for the Space Coast’s months-long launch drought, reports News 6 partner Florida Today.

A pandemic-triggered shortage of oxygen across the nation has rippled out to spaceflight companies like SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, officials confirmed this week, and is part of the reason for the Space Coast’s months-long launch drought, reports News 6 partner Florida Today.

Despite a breakneck cadence of launches during the first half of the year, neither Cape Canaveral Space Force Station nor Kennedy Space Center have hosted a mission since June 30. Had the cadence held, the spaceport was well on its way to approaching a record-breaking 40 to 50 launches in 2021.

But changing demands for oxygen have forced suppliers to prioritize hospitals overrun with COVID patients – and high-priority customers like launch providers are not immune to seeing their tanks slowly lose pressure.

“We’re actually going to be impacted this year with the lack of liquid oxygen for launch,” Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, said Tuesday during a panel at the 36th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “We certainly are going to make sure hospitals have the liquid oxygen they need.”

The need for liquid oxygen

Blue Origin's liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen BE-4 engine can produce up to 550,000 pounds of thrust. (Image: Blue Origin)

Liquid oxygen, or LOX, is a critical resource to most launch providers, heavy industry, and even city water systems. Rockets like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V combine supercooled oxygen with rocket-grade kerosene to produce thrust necessary for liftoff.

Blue Origin’s operations on the Cape, meanwhile, aren’t fully in need of LOX yet as the upcoming New Glenn rocket isn’t slated for flight until at least late 2022. But the company has been notified that resources are being shifted just as its teams in Van Horn, Texas, prepare to launch the smaller New Shepard rocket on an uncrewed mission Thursday. Liftoff is slated for 8:35 a.m. Central time.

Though it varies per mission, a typical Falcon 9 flight can use about 40,000 gallons of LOX in the first stage and several thousand more in the rocket’s second stage. There is no substitute immediately available for cutting-edge, powerful engines used by launch providers that are often the most expensive components of a rocket.

But it’s not just the actual amount of oxygen available across the nation: logistics, which have also been hit hard during the pandemic, are also causing a bottleneck. From the widespread need for truckers to delayed tanker deliveries, sometimes the ability to transport the resource is the only thing standing in the way.

ULA CEO Tory Bruno said while his company’s next mission is still on target for a mid-September liftoff from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, a tanker diverted to help COVID patients could impact the timeline.

“Contractor that transports (nitrogen to Vandenberg) is helping with COVID-related LOX effort in Florida,” Bruno said Tuesday via Twitter. “Working that situation now.”

Yet other vehicles like NASA’s massive Space Launch System, slated for its debut Artemis I mission before the end of this year, require incredible quantities of liquid oxygen stored in tanks that constantly have to be topped off due to warming. The tanks themselves usually do not have the hardware needed to reduce temperatures, but instead, act like massive insulated water bottles.

The SLS storage tank, a white sphere located at KSC’s pad 39B, can store up to 900,000 gallons and has been gradually filled, tested, and run through its paces since 2017. The liquid oxygen is transported via trucks over thousands of deliveries.

Connecticut-based Praxair was NASA’s go-to supplier of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen until the company merged with Linde 2018, a German gas and chemical company. Linde did not respond to requests for more information.

Florida’s oxygen predicament is further exacerbated by the fact that liquid oxygen is often used to treat water by removing discoloration and natural smells. During a press conference last week, officials urged customers of the Orlando Utilities Commission to reduce water use as much as possible.

“What we’re asking for is for people to temporarily suspend the use of water for irrigation, pressure washing, washing vehicles, and we’re asking our commercial customers to join forces to do the same,” OUC’s Linda Ferrone, who cautioned a boil water notice might be necessary if the situation doesn’t improve, said on Friday. “It’s unprecedented, but we also realize now is the time to act.”

Starlink cadence and the next launch

In early 2021 SpaceX began allowing more orders of the Starlink internet kits. The screenshot shows the order form from Starlink.com. (WKMG 2020)

SpaceX’s rapid buildout of the Starlink internet constellation has been a boon for the Space Coast’s flight cadence. Last year alone, Starlink missions accounted for nearly half of the 31 total launches.

In her remarks at Space Symposium, Shotwell also said the global computer chip shortage hasn’t just been limited to cars and electronics. Procuring the right chips for rockets and the swaths of hardware needed to support them is also proving to be an obstacle. And for customers looking to sign up for Starlink service, the shortage has acutely impacted SpaceX’s ability to get terminals – small satellite dishes that connect users to the constellation – in the hands of customers.

“We have two big issues right now,” Shotwell said. “One are the chips, which I think everybody understands the issue. In fact, that’s what’s delayed some of the user terminals that we’re designing. And the other thing is liquid oxygen.”

Despite the shortages, the Kennedy Space Center does in fact have one launch on the books for this month: a Falcon 9 rocket and Cargo Dragon capsule are slated to fly early Saturday on a resupply mission to the International Space Station.

If a test fire of the rocket’s nine Merlin main engines goes well Wednesday night or sometime Thursday, teams at pad 39A will target 3:37 a.m. Saturday for liftoff. The uncrewed capsule is expected to dock with the ISS with thousands of pounds of supplies and science experiments around 11 a.m. Sunday.

Contact Emre Kelly at aekelly@floridatoday.com or 321-242-3715. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @EmreKelly. Support space journalism by subscribing at floridatoday.com/specialoffer/.