What does the payload fairing issue mean for the remainder of SpaceX’s 2017 launch manifest?
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — The classified “Zuma” mission has been delayed, and a report from an unconfirmed source suggests that the reason for the delay could cause a premature close to most of the remainder of SpaceX’s 2017 launch manifest.
Initial statements made by SpaceX noted that the company had opted to push the launch to Friday, Nov. 17. However, it appears that the issues encountered might have created a more fluid situation than was anticipated and the company and other relevant parties, including The Space Coast, noted that the launch was now “off the schedule.”
There does not appear to be, at this time, a clear idea within the public of how severe the payload fairing issue that the Hawthorne, California-based company encountered was or whether a simple redesign and fix could solve the matter and allow for the remaining flights to go ahead.
On Nov. 16, SpaceX noted: “We have decided to stand down and take a closer look at data from recent fairing testing for another customer. Though we have preserved the range opportunity for tomorrow, we will take the time we need to complete the data review and will then confirm a new launch date.”
Though we’ve preserved the range opportunity for tomorrow, we’ll take the time needed to complete the data review and then confirm a new launch date.
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) November 16, 2017
As reports come in from both confirmed (45th Space Wing) and via unconfirmed sources, a question arose: What does this mean for the remainder of the NewSpace company’s 2017 launch manifest?
In terms of the next flight that SpaceX has under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contract, not much. The $1.6 billion agreement likely won’t be impacted as the cargo variant of SpaceX‘s Dragon spacecraft does not utilize a payload fairing (the rocket’s nose cone) when it travels to the International Space Station and the mission appears to still be a “go” for a December 4 launch date. When launched this will be the 13th flight under this agreement (CRS-13).
The payload fairing issue that SpaceX has encountered could mean that Zuma, as well as the Iridium NEXT 4 flight slated to take place on December 22, might not take place this year and the “unofficial” flight of the Falcon Heavy, which could have taken place later this year is unlikely to occur.
However, with no word from SpaceX, much of what has been posted on other websites and blogs is speculation. In terms of SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center activities for the rest of the year is, excluding the CRS-13 flight, empty. This leaves a month-and-a-half open for them to work on and correct the payload fairing issue and then reschedule the other flights on their 2017 manifest.
Little, not even which department of the U.S. government has purchased the flight is, is known about the Zuma mission. The few scraps of information publicly available denote that it has been produced by Northrop Grumman, that it is planned to be launched to low-Earth orbit, and that it is a payload being flown on behalf of the U.S. government.
For the sake of clarity, SpaceFlight Insider has reached out to SpaceX and asked specifically about the current situation. As of this writing, we have not received a response to our inquiries – but as soon as we do, we will update this article accordingly.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.