SpaceX, ULA postpone launches as Hurricane Ian moves toward Florida

A view from NOAA’s GOES-16 weather satellite of Hurricane Ian making landfall in Southwest Florida on Sept. 28. Credit: NOAA

The forecast track of Hurricane Ian across Central Florida has forced SpaceX and United Launch Alliance to postpone several upcoming launches at Cape Canaveral, including the next crew flight to the International Space Station, a Starlink mission, and the liftoff of an Atlas 5 rocket.

SpaceX planned to launch two Falcon 9 rockets Sept. 30 and Oct. 3, one with the next batch of Starlink internet satellites and another with a team of four astronauts and cosmonauts to begin a five-month expedition on the International Space Station.

Both missions have been postponed, with the crew launch now tentatively rescheduled for no earlier than Oct. 5 at 12 p.m. EDT (1600 GMT). NASA previously announced Tuesday that the mission launch of the Crew-5 mission would be delayed at least a day to Oct. 4, and the missions could be pushed back again. After Oct. 5, SpaceX has additional launch opportunities available for Crew-5 on Oct. 7, 8, and 9.

NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, both first-time space fliers, will serve as commander and pilot on the Crew-5 mission, the fifth operational flight of a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft to the space station under contract with NASA. Veteran Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata and rookie Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina will also launch on the Crew-5 mission.

Mann’s crew will replace another team of four astronauts who have been on the space station since April on the Crew-4 mission. That crew, commanded by NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, will depart the station and return to Earth for splashdown off the coast of Florida about five days after Crew-5 arrives, whenever that occurs.

SpaceX ground teams moved the Crew Dragon Endurance spacecraft from the ship’s fueling facility to the Falcon 9 rocket hangar Sept. 23 near Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center. Technicians mated the capsule to the Falcon 9 rocket inside the hangar, where the launcher remains secured to ride out Hurricane Ian.

“The Dragon Endurance spacecraft is currently mated to the Falcon 9 rocket and safely secured inside SpaceX’s hangar at Launch Complex 39A,” NASA said in a statement. “Kennedy Space Center is also making preparations across the spaceport to secure other property and infrastructure. After the storm progresses, teams from NASA and SpaceX will evaluate the potential impacts to the center and determine whether to adjust the mission timeline further.”

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endurance spacecraft moves toward the Falcon 9 hangar at Launch Complex 39A on Sept. 23. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX will wait to roll the Falcon 9 rocket Dragon spacecraft the quarter-mile distance from the hangar up the ramp to pad 39A after the bad weather passes from Hurricane Ian, which made landfall on Southwest Florida Wednesday shortly after 3 p.m. EDT (1900 GMT) as a strong Category 4 hurricane. Forecasters predict Hurricane Ian will slowly move north-northeast across Florida, potentially bringing tropical storm conditions to the Cape Canaveral spaceport.

“We’re ready to roll out whenever the weather is ready to go roll out,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX. “But we don’t want to roll out and end up with high winds and rain. We’ve got the right criteria. We shared that with NASA Kennedy Space Center so they know what our constraints are.”

Mann and her crewmates remain in Houston. They were scheduled to fly to Kennedy Space Center on Monday, but NASA managers decided to hold off on that milestone as Hurricane Ian threatened to move toward Florida. They will need to travel to KSC at least four days before liftoff to participate in final training activities, including a dress rehearsal at the launch pad, where the crew members will board the Dragon capsule to practice for launch day.

SpaceX also planned to launch a Falcon 9 rocket Friday from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, a few miles south of pad 39A, with another batch of Starlink internet satellites. That launch has also been postponed into October, likely after a pair of Falcon 9 missions planned from pad 40 for commercial customers Intelsat and Eutelsat set for Oct. 5 and Oct. 13.

That shuffling in SpaceX’s launch schedule would push back the next Starlink mission from Cape Canaveral until mid-October. SpaceX officials have said they prioritize missions with customer payloads.

Gerstenmaier said SpaceX’s fast-paced launch schedule, primarily driven by Starlink missions, helps improve reliability for astronaut launches. SpaceX has launched 43 Falcon 9 rocket flights so far this year, already a record number of space launches by a commercial company in a calendar year.

“W’ve been flying a lot of missions, a lot of Starlink missions,” Gerstenmaier said. “I think that really helps the crew program. We learn a lot in those missions and we can carry that learning directly into crewed missions. But I will tell you crewed missions are special. They are very different to us. they are not routine in any way, shape, or form. we treat these missions with more respect than any missions we fly.”

United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket inside the Vertical Integration Facility with the SES 20 and SES 21 communications satellites on-board. Credit: United Launch Alliance

Meanwhile, United Launch Alliance has postponed the launch of an Atlas 5 rocket from pad 41 until no earlier than Oct. 4 at 5:36 p.m. EDT (2136 GMT), a four-day delay from the previous target date. The Atlas 5 rocket and its payloads are fully stacked inside ULA’s Vertical Integration Facility, ready for rollout to pad 41 once the weather clears. ULA teams hoisted the rocket’s payload fairing, containing two commercial TV broadcasting spacecraft for the satellite operator SES, on top of the Atlas 5 rocket earlier this month.

“Both satellites are integrated to the launch vehicle and safely secured within the Vehicle Integration Facility at SLC-41,” ULA said in a statement.

The Atlas 5 rocket needs to roll out to the launch pad the day before liftoff to prepare for the countdown.

Hurricane Ian is also impacting other operations at the Cape Canaveral spaceport. All regular work at Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station has been suspended.

NASA rolled the Artemis 1 moon rocket back to the Vehicle Assembly Building early Tuesday to take shelter from the hurricane, likely delaying the inaugural flight of the Space Launch System until mid-November. The agency previously hoped to launch the uncrewed Artemis 1 test flight to the moon this week, following scrubbed launch attempts Aug. 29 and Sept. 3.

Read our full story on the Artemis 1 rollback to the VAB.

Relativity Space, a commercial startup planning its first orbital launch attempt later this year, moved its Terran 1 booster off its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station after a series of engine hotfire tests. Most recently, Relativity test-fired the rocket’s nine methane-fueled engines at Launch Complex 16 for 82 seconds on Sept. 23.

“Rolling back to hangar to keep vehicle safe during impending hurricane in Florida,” said Tim Ellis, Relativity’s co-founder and CEO. “Early data and hardware looking solid from last week’s extensive stage one testing, super happy with the results.”

Relativity Space’s Terran 1 rocket moves into the company’s hangar at Launch Complex 16 to take shelter from Hurricane Ian. Credit: Relativity Space

Other activities at the Cape Canaveral spaceport have also been affected by the threat from Hurricane Ian. A large crane supporting construction of SpaceX’s new Starship launch pad at Launch Complex 39A was lowered and secured Tuesday.

Several spacecraft are also at the spaceport preparing for future launches, aside from SpaceX’s Dragon Endurance crew capsule and the two SES communications satellites already attached to their rockets.

Intelsat’s Galaxy 33 and 34 television broadcasting satellites and Eutelsat’s Hotbird 13F communications spacecraft are undergoing final launch preparations at a payload processing facility at Cape Canaveral. NASA’s Psyche asteroid explorer is secured at Kennedy Space Center’s Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility awaiting a launch opportunity as soon as next July, following a launch delay earlier this year to resolve software concerns with the robotic science mission.

The U.S. Space Force is also believed to have a classified payload at Cape Canaveral preparing for launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket later this year.

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