WASHINGTON – Partial government violation has prompted a company to postpone a future launch and could affect other commercial launches in the near future, including a major commercial mission to the crew.
Exos Aerospace had planned the launch of the SARGE suborbital rocket, January 5, in Spaceport America in New Mexico. This launch was postponed until February 9, said John Quinn, the company's executive director, on Jan. 2.
Quinn said a major reason for this delay was the company's inability to modify its existing launch license from the Federal Office of Aviation Administration of Commercial Space. The company intended to change the license to change the wind safety calculations to reduce the chance of cleaning.
"The FAA did not support the license changes during the shutdown, so we delayed the potential to lower the probability of a bottleneck based on restricting the wind labels in our license," he said.
The FAA, part of the Department of Transportation, is one of the government agencies affected by the partial closure of the government, which began on December 22, when a continuing resolution of financing these agencies expired. The FAA announced on December 22 that only "exempt" activities will continue during closure. This includes "surveillance of the launch of commercial space", according to the closure plan of the department, but not other activities related to commercial space transport.
Quinn said that if Exos decided to start the launch, the FAA would have assigned the staff to support it. However, the company decided to postpone the launch to buy more time to modify its license. One factor in this, he said, was the limited deliveries and high helium costs used to pressurize the propulsion system of the vehicle; the delay in launching reduces the chance that helium will be wasted on a windbreak launching scrub.
The launch will be the second for SARGE, a reusable sound racer developed by Exos for useful flying tasks to the edge of the space. The missile, on its first launch on August 25, suffered a problem with the GPS receiver that triggered an early stop of the main engine. The rocket has reached a 28-kilometer high altitude – much less than 80 kilometers – before landing on a landing near the launch site. If the GPS receiver did not work flawlessly, the company said the rocket could fly at nearly 90 kilometers.
Other business launches are ongoing as planned, despite the closure. SpaceX prepares its first Falcon 9 release on January 8th, launching the latest Iridium Next satellite bin from California's Vandenberg Air Base. This release remains on track, despite the closure, as the company has an existing license for such launches.
The next launch of Blue Origin's Suborbital New Shepard, previously planned for mid-December, was pushed to "early 2019" after a series of technical problems and bad weather at its launch site in West Texas. The company has an FAA license for such launches, but it is uncertain if the shutdown will have any effect on the payloads that the launch will make through the NASA's Opportunities Flight program because NASA is also affected by the shutdown. The spokesman for a company did not respond to a request for comments on its January 2 launch plans.
The impact of NASA shutdown may delay the launch of SpaceX. Before the shutdown, SpaceX was scheduled to launch its first commercial demonstration mission, DM-1, January 17. This mission will send a Crew Dragon to the International Space Station, but no astronauts on board.
SpaceX launched the Falcon 9 rocket launcher with the Crew Dragon Spacecraft to launch the 39A Complex at the beginning of January for a series of pad tests. However, with the closure in progress, NASA staff required to support the flight, such as for comment before launch, was furloughed, according to industry sources. This would probably delay the launch, even if the spacecraft and launch vehicle are ready.
SpaceX may also need a new FAA launch license or change it for the mission. An existing launch license covers the launches of the cargo version of the Dragon spacecraft since the launch of the 39A Complex, but it is unclear whether this license can also be used for a crewed spacecraft. A spokesman for SpaceX said January 3 said the company was looking for closure issues that could affect future releases.