WASHINGTON — The launch of NASA’s Psyche mission represents the beginning of the agency’s use of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, which the agency will rely upon for some of its biggest science and exploration missions this decade.
A Falcon Heavy is scheduled to lift off Oct. 13 at 10:19 a.m. Eastern carrying the Pscyhe mission to the metallic asteroid of the same name. NASA elected not to attempt a launch Oct. 12 because of poor weather expected at launch, with a 40% chance of favorable weather for this instantaneous launch window.
The launch will be the eighth flight of the Falcon Heavy but the first devoted to NASA. Previous launches, after the demonstration launch of the rocket in February 2018, were for commercial and U.S. military customers.
At a pre-launch briefing Oct. 11, Julianna Scheiman, director of civil satellite missions at SpaceX, noted the launch will be the first company mission to fly under the NASA Launch Service Program’s Category 3, used for high-value missions that seek to minimize launch risk. That requires several successful launches and extensive agency reviews. “That means Falcon Heavy has been through the wringer,” she said.
NASA has, in recent years, increasingly turned to Falcon Heavy for major missions. The rocket is under contract to launch the GOES-U weather satellite and Europa Clipper planetary science mission in 2024. That will be followed by the first two modules of the lunar Gateway, the HALO module and Power and Propulsion Element, launching together. Falcon Heavy will also launch the Roman Space Telescope observatory in 2026.
Falcon Heavy has, in some cases, been the only option for NASA with the impending retirement of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 and delays with that company’s Vulcan and Blue Origin’s New Glenn.
The agency sought and received some accommodations from SpaceX regarding this launch. After the company postponed a Falcon 9 launch of Starlink satellites from neighboring Cape Canaveral Space Force Station late Oct. 8 because of weather, SpaceX said it would prioritize the Falcon Heavy launch, postponing the Starlink launch until after Psyche lifts off.
That was done at the request of NASA. “We have requested certain setbacks and SpaceX has accommodated our request,” said Tim Dunn, senior launch director for NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP). “We did ask them to stand down on that Starlink [launch] earlier this week.”
That postponement, he said, ensures that engineers have enough time to evaluate data from a previous launch before approving the Falcon Heavy launch. They were busy reviewing from another Falcon 9 Starlink launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base that took place early Oct. 9. The Florida Starlink launch has been rescheduled for the evening of Oct. 13, assuming the Psyche launch takes place as scheduled.
As with Falcon 9, NASA has accepted some degree of reusability with the Falcon Heavy. The two side boosters will be making their fourth launch on Psyche, having previously been used for two Space Force missions and the launch of the Jupiter 3 commercial communications satellite. The same side boosters will be used on the Falcon Heavy launch of Europa Clipper in a year, which will be their sixth flight.
“That’s the family of flights, as you can tell, that we’re comfortable with today, but we’re always continually looking at data and trying to push that forward,” Dunn said.
While SpaceX also regularly reuses payload fairings, that is not the case for Psyche. “We weren’t ready for reused fairings on Psyche,” he said, which extends to other NASA missions launching on Falcon. “We have begun the dialogue and we are working with SpaceX, and I do see LSP and NASA reusing fairings in the future.” He suggested that NASA would be ready to reuse fairings on its launches by late 2024 or early 2025.