If all had gone well, the Falcon 9 would be launching this morning to test the Dragon spacecraft. However, SpaceX announced Monday afternoon that the launch would be postponed because of cracks in the nozzle of the rocket’s second-stage engine. Specifically, SpaceX is examining two small cracks in the aft end of the nozzle expansion of the engine, made of a niobium alloy; that extension, not used in the first-stage engines, improves engine performance in vacuum. At Monday afternoon’s press conference SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said the analysis of the problem would delay the launch to Thursday, with a further delay to Friday or Saturday if the nozzle needs to be replaced. Later, though, the company said there would be a chance the launch could be performed on Wednesday. A decision is not expected until later today.
The reaction to the upcoming launch varies considerably. At one extreme is an editorial in the Orange County Register, which is excited about the prospects of commercializing spaceflight (beyond, presumably, the commercial launch activity that exists today for communications and other satellites, not mentioned in the editorial.) Even if the launch fails, the editorial argues, “another launch will succeed, and the transition of space travel from a strictly government endeavor to one dominated by private companies will have advanced an important step.”
At another extreme is an op-ed by Examiner.com reported Jason Rhian, who was less than impressed with Shotwell’s performance at Monday’s press conference. He criticized as “flippant and haughty” her response to a reporter’s question about cost: “We don’t really talk about cost at SpaceX.” Rhian: “Given the status that Obama has given to SpaceX above all others, including NASA itself; Shotwell should be required to talk about cost.” Besides confusing the difference between “price” and “cost” (which was the point of Shotwell’s comments; as she noted, SpaceX publishes launch prices on its web site, which other major commercial launch providers do not), it’s worth noting that both the COTS development award and the CRS cargo contract are not traditional cost-plus contracts, where understanding a company’s costs is important. For this week’s launch NASA is not paying SpaceX specifically for a launch but instead has been providing SpaceX with funding as the company met milestones for development of the Falcon 9 and Dragon under its COTS award. (The launch is one of the milestones in the award, but only a token amount of funding is associated with it, as most of the money–$253 million of the $287 million, NASA’s Alan Lindenmoyer said Monday–has already been awarded to SpaceX for achieving earlier milestones.)