SpaceX set to launch new rocket primed for future crewed missions

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) – An updated version of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, tailored for eventual crewed missions into orbit, was set for its debut commercial launch on Thursday from Florida’s Cape Canaveral carrying a communications satellite for Bangladesh.

The newly minted Block-5 edition of the Falcon 9, equipped with about 100 upgrades for greater power, safety and reusability than its Block-4 predecessor, was scheduled for liftoff at 5:47 p.m. ET from the Kennedy Space Center.

Liftoff was pushed back by about 90 minutes from the original launch time. SpaceX did not disclose a reason but said the rocket and cargo were otherwise set to go.

“Vehicle and payload continue to look good for today’s first flight of Falcon 9 Block 5,” the company said in a Twitter post.

Its recoverable main-stage booster is designed to be reused at least 10 times with minimal refurbishment between flights, allowing more frequent launches at lower cost – a key to the business model for billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies, as SpaceX is formally known.

Enhanced rocket reusability also is a core tenet of Musk’s broader objectives for normalizing space travel and ultimately sending humans to Mars.

At a prelaunch news conference, Musk said he hoped to “demonstrate two orbital launches with a single booster within 24 hours by sometime next year.”  

SpaceX so far has safely return-landed 24 of its boosters and reflown 11 of them.

The Block-5 is the first rocket from Musk’s California-based company to satisfy NASA’s standards for its Commercial Crew Program to carry agency astronauts to the International Space Station, which SpaceX was seeking to accomplish by the end of 2018.

But the first scheduled test launch of the Block-5 with a crew is likely to slip to next year, and NASA requires seven successful flights before the new rocket receives final certification for a manned mission.

The Block-5 will also be used to launch U.S. Air Force global positioning satellites and other high-value, military and national security payloads.

For Thursday’s maiden flight of the new Falcon 9, SpaceX will be launching the Bangladeshi government’s first satellite, Bangabandhu-1, into Earth orbit.

Among the Block-5 features new to the Falcon 9 series are a heat-resistant layer of shielding at the rocket’s base, reusable tail fins for cleaner return landings and a thrust nearly 10 percent stronger than that of the Block-4.

Block-5 marks the final version of the Falcon 9 lineup before SpaceX introduces its super heavy-lift launch vehicle, dubbed the Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR, which will be designed to send manned missions to Mars.

SpaceX is one of two private companies hired by NASA to ferry astronaut crews to the space station. The other is Boeing Co

Reporting by Joey Roulette in Cape Canaveral, Fla; Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Cooney

Stella Densmore