A SpaceX rocket launched Sunday morning, carrying the space transport company’s first national security cargo for the US – a GPS satellite built by Lockheed Martin. The successful launch follows several delays this week, including two due to weather, and one due to unusual sensor readings from the Falcon 9 rocket, according to Gizmodo.
The launch proceeded despite a federal government shutdown which went into effect this weekend.
“In the event of a government shutdown in December of this year, the Air Force does not anticipate an impact to our ability to conduct launch operations,” a spokesperson for Air Force Space Command told The Verge, ahead of the launch.
The next-generation GPS satellite will offer three times the accuracy of current systems, and a stronger transmitter more resistant to jamming attempts. However, the Air Force is still working to develop the ground control systems it needs to operate.
For SpaceX, the mission was a milestone. As the last launch of the year, it helped to ensure that the company carried out more launches in 2018 than in any previous year. It also is the fruit of ongoing efforts by SpaceX to win contracts for military space launches. The company even sued the Air Force in 2014, over a non-compete contract that was awarded to United Launch Services, a collaboration between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
The following year, the Air Force agreed to open the contracts to competition, and in 2016, SpaceX was awarded the current contract to launch the GPS satellite, for 83 million dollars.
The launch was originally planned by the Air Force for 2014, but suffered a number of delays.
One of the most important innovations by SpaceX has been their reusable rockets, which have dramatically decreased the cost of spaceflight. But in this case, the weight of the payload and the high-altitude orbit required for the GPS satellite meant that the first stage of the rocket could not be recovered after the launch. All of the propellant was used for the launch itself, instead of for the powered landing necessary for recovery.
According to Walter Lauderdale, mission director of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) Launch Enterprise Systems Directorate, “There simply was not a performance reserve to meet our requirements and allow for this mission to bring the first stage back.”
However, future launches of the new generation of GPS may include attempts to recover the rocket.