SpaceX’s first dedicated Falcon Heavy launch for NASA has been delayed for seven weeks after spacecraft engineers discovered a software anomaly during pre-flight processing.
Named after the exotic metallic asteroid it is designed to explore, NASA’s Psyche spacecraft completed its journey from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California to launch facilities at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center late april. To date, it is the first and only Falcon Heavy payload to reach Kennedy Space Center since mid-2019. At the time of its arrival, it was somewhat unclear when Falcon Heavy would finally end its three-year launch hiatus or which payload(s) would be atop the rocket for the event. .
Three weeks later, the two things are still unclear, but now for different reasons.
On May 23, Spaceflight Now reported that it had received a written statement from NASA confirming that the Psyche launch had been delayed from August 1, 2022 to the earliest (NET) September 20 “after ground crews discovered a problem during software testing on the spacecraft.” After the spacecraft arrived at a payload processing facility at Kennedy Space Center, teams spent the last few weeks combing through Psyche and ensuring it survived the trip without issue. At some unknown time, engineers should have turned on the spacecraft’s computers to perform extensive diagnostic tests, and it’s also possible that a late version of Psyche’s flight software was externally analyzed before final installation.
Either way, something went wrong. For now, all NASA is prepared to say is that “a problem prevents confirmation that the software controlling the spacecraft is working as intended.” Although it appears to be software-focused, such a vague statement doesn’t rule out the possibility of a hardware issue, which might help better explain why NASA and the spacecraft team quickly chose to delay the launch of Psyché by more than seven weeks.
For unknown reasons, virtually all short term Falcon Heavy payloads have strayed significantly from their original launch target. Over the past few weeks, the USSF-44 – supposed to launch as soon as June 2022 after years of delay – has been “delayed indefinitely.Delayed from Q3 2020, USSF-52 launch is now scheduled for October 2022. ViaSat-3, once supposed to launch on Falcon Heavy in 2020, is now NET September 2022. Jupiter-3, a communications satellite record that wasn’t actually confirmed as a Falcon Heavy launch contract until a few weeks ago, recently slipped from 2021 and 2022 to early 2023.
Only USSF-67, whose official launch target has not been updated in over a year, would still be on track to launch somewhere within its original launch window (H2 2022). If it really launches without delay on a Falcon Heavy rocket in November 2022, it will be completely absurd. Meanwhile, Psyche’s September 20 delay means it could now conflict with Falcon Heavy’s ViaSat-3 mission, which must use the same launch pad. More likely than not, ViaSat-3 was already susceptible to slippage in the fourth quarter, but the situation illustrates how agonizing planning launches for nearly half a dozen chronically delayed payloads must be for SpaceX.
Meanwhile, SpaceX must also store and maintain nine different Falcon Heavy boosters as they are forced to continue waiting for their long-running missions. SpaceX’s entire fleet of operational Falcon 9s — including a Falcon Heavy booster temporarily serving as a Falcon 9 — contains 12 boosters, meaning more than 40% of all Falcon boosters are currently deadweight.