SpaceX scrubs launch after helicopter ventures into restricted airspace

Credit: Michael Cain / Spaceflight Now / Coldlife Photography

A private helicopter flew into restricted airspace near Cape Canaveral moments before the scheduled liftoff of a Falcon 9 rocket Tuesday. SpaceX chief Elon Musk said the keep out zone for launches is “unreasonably gigantic” and called for updated regulations.

The Federal Aviation Administration clears commercial and private aircraft from safety zones around rocket launches. For missions departing from Cape Canaveral, the U.S. Space Force also plays a role in ensuring public safety.

SpaceX was set to launch a Falcon 9 rocket at 2:56 p.m. EDT (1856 GMT) Tuesday to begin the company’s Transporter 2 rideshare mission with 88 small satellites.

But the Space Force’s range safety officer declared the range as “no go” for launch less than a minute before liftoff. The countdown stopped at T-minus 11 seconds, and SpaceX announced the launch was scrubbed for the day a few minutes later.

“Unfortunately, launch is called off for today, as an aircraft entered the ‘keep out zone,’ which is unreasonably gigantic,” Musk tweeted. “There is simply no way that humanity can become a spacefaring civilization without major regulatory reform. The current regulatory system is broken.”

In a statement after Tuesday’s scrubbed launch attempt, the FAA said the “system worked and kept people safe.”

Another factor in the launch scrub was SpaceX’s use of densified, super-chilled propellants, which must be maintained at the proper temperatures to squeeze out the required performance from the Falcon 9 rocket.

Although there was a 58-minute launch window available for SpaceX Tuesday, there was not enough time to drain propellants from the Falcon 9 rocket, ensure the fluids were reconditioned at the proper temperature, then load propellants back into the launcher.

The advantage of using the densified kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants is that it gives the Falcon 9 an increase in lift capability. It also helps ensure the rocket can reserve enough fuel to perform a propulsive landing.

Other rockets, which are fully expendable, do not use densified propellant. Those launchers have the ability to hold the countdown to wait for a last-minute storm or aircraft to clear the area.

The FAA is developing revised procedures to streamline how it clears airspace for rocket launches. Regulators want to better integrate spaceflight operations into the national airspace system, which the FAA says will lead to fewer flights being re-routed or delayed by rocket launches.

The cause of the scrubbed launch attempt Tuesday was a privately operated helicopter that violated a restricted area in the final seconds before liftoff, the FAA said.

“Air traffic controllers immediately directed the pilot to leave the area,” the FAA said. “For safety and security reasons, the launch was scrubbed until tomorrow.”

The FAA said it is investigating the incident.

Musk’s criticism of space industry regulators is not new. He tweeted in January that the FAA’s space division “has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure” after regulators did not approve SpaceX’s planned launch of a Starship test rocket from South Texas.

“Their rules are meant for a handful of expendable launches per year from a few government facilities,” Musk said. “Under those rules, humanity will never get to Mars.”

The launch of the Transporter 2 mission was rescheduled for Wednesday, with the same 58-minute window opening at 2:56 p.m. EDT (1856 GMT).

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.