The Falcon 9 rocket’s eagerly anticipated inaugural launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base could come soon, but Cold War-era secrecy is keeping officials mum about plans.
As of Thursday evening, officials hadn’t released the planned launch day or window for the rocket built by the private firm, Space Exploration Technologies, based in Hawthorne.
However, several signs were pointing to plans for a blastoff from Space Launch Complex-4 on South Base mid-day Sunday.
Boaters and pilots had been warned to remain out of the area around South Base between 9 a.m. and noon Sunday.
Additionally, visitors to Jalama Beach County Park and Miguelito County Park were warned they may be evacuated from 7 a.m. to noon on the day of the launch. Park visitors were warned the mandatory evacuations would occur Sunday with a backup date of Monday in the event the launch slips.
The mission was previously planned for Tuesday and Saturday before being rescheduled for an attempt Sunday.
One reason liftoff was up in the air is delays involving the test-firing of the rocket’s engines at SLC-4 on South Base.
That test was supposed to occur Wednesday but was scrubbed, SpaceX officials said, without expanding on the reason.
That test typically involves a full countdown and firing of the first stage’s nine engines for a couple of seconds, then shutting them down as the rocket remains affixed to the launch pad.
Another attempt was to occur Thursday, but the team reportedly encountered at least one glitch before the test took place, according to unverified social media postings.
As with any mission from Vandenberg, mission managers will gather for a final review to confirm the rocket, satellite and other aspects are ready for a real liftoff attempt.
Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket designed and manufactured by SpaceX, the 11-year-old firm started by PayPal co-founder and CEO Elon Musk who has since added Tesla electric car company to his portfolio and more recently Hyperloop high-speed transportation system.
The veil of secrecy for this commercial launch is reminiscent of Cold War-era missions by the Air Force and other government agencies from Vandenberg and is remarkably different from the early beginnings of SpaceX.
A smaller version of the Falcon rocket initially was supposed to blast off from Space Launch Complex-3 West, an old Atlas facility at Vandenberg, and plans for a test firing were announced in advance in 2005.
However, several factors led to the mission moving to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Central Pacific Ocean and SpaceX relocating to the old Titan launch pad it uses today.
The Falcon 9 flight is considered a demonstration launch — the rocket will carry a much smaller payload than it can handle as the customer was granted a cheaper ride for accepting the higher risk. Canada’s Cassiope spacecraft is the cargo.
SpaceX hopes to prove its rocket’s capabilities so it can compete with United Launch Alliance’s Atlas and Delta boosters for government business under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Program.