SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket takes off from Kennedy Space Center on Dec. 28.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket takes off from Kennedy Space Center on Dec. 28. (Richard Tribou, Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER (Tribune News Service) — A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket basked in the near full moonlight on the launch pad, and then took over the light show, blasting off on the first of two planned missions from the Space Coast on Thursday night.

The powerhouse rocket carried with it the secretive X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle on the USSF-52 mission for the Space Force, carving its way into the clear black sky at 8:07 p.m. ET, lifting off from KSC’s Launch Pad 39-A. A Falcon 9 rocket at adjacent Cape Canaveral Space Force Station was set to lift off less than three hours later on a Starlink mission.

Flying for only the ninth time ever but fifth time this year alone, the Falcon Heavy became the Space Coast’s 71st launch of the year. The rocket that is essentially three Falcon 9 boosters strapped together rumbled into the night sky with 5.1 million pounds of thrust drowning out the cheers of viewing parties at the space center. As the two side boosters separated from the core stage, all three created jellyfish-like contrails that glowed as the booster engines continued to burn through their fuel.

The two side boosters completed their fifth flight, descending down past a backdrop of Orion and other winter constellations with another recovery landing at nearby Canaveral Landing Zones 1 and 2. Their return after liftoff brought the signature double sonic booms for each booster, shaking windows at the press site, with echoes reverberating off the massive Vehicle Assembly Building. SpaceX did not plan to recover the core stage.

Earlier in the day, launch fans were seen out in force with about a mile backup leading into Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center by 3 p.m. ET, where visitors who pay extra get a chance to view liftoff from the Apollo/Saturn V Center at the Banana Creek viewing site about three miles from the launch pad. Reports on X, though, showed some prepaid ticket holders venting frustration after security turned them away.

“We are working as quickly as possible to get the correct information to all parties. We apologize for the inconvenience,” the visitor center posted.

The launch came more than two weeks since poor weather, and then what SpaceX reported was a “ground side issue” found less than an hour before liftoff, forced delays.

It’s the third time Falcon Heavy has flown for the Space Force, but the first time the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle made by Boeing is getting such a powerful ride. Its six previous launches, the first of which came in 2010, were all on either United Launch Alliance Atlas V or SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets.

Falcon Heavy can send the spacecraft with its top-secret payloads to higher orbits, as it’s the most powerful rocket available for regular launches. A Space Force press release said the X-37B would be heading to “new orbital regimes” as part of the spacecraft’s “experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform.”

The X-37B’s missions have all been classified, with each mission lasting for longer durations. Its sixth trip that concluded last November with a touchdown at the former Shuttle Landing Facility at KSC lasted nearly 909 days. To date, the spacecraft has traveled more than 1.3 billion miles and spent more than 3,774 days in space.

Sometimes, the spacecraft brings along partners for the ride, including the second time NASA has flown a seed-based experiment to study how exposed plant seeds fare on long-duration space flights while subjected to harsher radiation than at lower orbits. This helps NASA inform its Artemis program missions’ plans for deep space, including trying to land a human on Mars by 2040.

As with the sixth trip into space, the latest version of the X-37B features a service module that allows for hosted experiments with partner agencies. It previously carried NASA’s first go at a seed experiment, the Naval Research Laboratory’s Photovoltaic Radio-frequency Antenna Module experiment, and was able to deploy the FalconSat-8 satellite developed by the U.S. Air Force Academy.

“The X-37B government and Boeing teams have worked together to produce a more responsive, flexible, and adaptive experimentation platform,” William D. Bailey, director of the Department of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said in a press release. “The work they’ve done to streamline processes and adapt evolving technologies will help our nation learn a tremendous amount about operating in and returning from a space environment.”

As far as Falcon Heavy goes, it’s settling in to a mix of commercial and military launches as well as having flown its first-ever launch for NASA this year.

The rocket first flew in 2018, sending up Elon Musk’s Tesla on a trip out past Mars. It only flew two more times in 2019 before taking more than a three-year break, but then began launching regularly, beginning with SpaceX’s first Falcon Heavy mission for the Space Force last fall.

For this fifth flight of 2023, the head of the Space Force’s Assured Access to Space program, Brig. Gen. Kristin Panzenhagen — who is based at Patrick Space Force Base and is also in charge of Space Launch Delta 45 and the Eastern Range — said teams had been resilient with the higher cadence of launches.

“Our team has done amazing work to prepare for this critical launch, and we’re doing even more behind the scenes,” she said. “We are honing our processes to make our launch capabilities even more responsive to national security needs. We are also making our spaceports more resilient to ensure that our ability to place capabilities into orbit never falters.”

SpaceX has been responsible for all but four of the Space Coast launches in 2023, and the final launch of the year could come later Thursday night.

Launch No. 72 among all companies is a Falcon 9 slated to fly at 11:01 p.m. ET during a four-hour window that runs through 2:59 a.m. Friday. The first-stage booster for the flight is making its 12th launch, and SpaceX is aiming for a recovery landing on the drone ship A Shortfall of Gravitas in the Atlantic Ocean.

If it flies, it would set a record for SpaceX launches between Space Coast pads. The previous record came on Oct. 13, when the Falcon Heavy Psyche launch for NASA from Kennedy Space Center preceded a Starlink mission from Cape Canaveral by 8 hours and 42 minutes.

An on-time liftoff would mean only 2 hours and 54 minutes between liftoffs.

It wouldn’t be an all-time record for the Space Coast, though. The shortest time between launches came during four Gemini program missions that flew in 1966. Those featured double launches from two different pads on what was then Cape Kennedy.

Those would send crew up in the Gemini capsule on Titan rockets about 100 minutes after Atlas boosters had sent up Agena Target Vehicles with which they would rendezvous in space. The record remains the two launches with Gemini 11, which sent up Pete Conrad and Richard Gordon from Launch Complex 19 only 97 minutes and 25 seconds after the Agena launch from Launch Complex 14, just over one mile to the south.

©2023 Orlando Sentinel.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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