A reader was aghast-- outraged, I say-- at my suggestion that this precious music satellite, Project Calliope, might launch a few months late.

Now, the rocket people at InterOrbital Systems are rock-solid and haven't had any reason to announce a delay. Their testing is on track. Certainly (as this blog shows) my satellite construction in proceeding in a timely fashion. So why do I think we won't launch until 2011?

The answer is just about everything launches late. Late is the new early. The launch industry is predicated on being absolutely perfect with engineering details, and wildly inaccurate about when you actually launch.

What can go wrong with a launch? Weather, for one. We still can't control the weather. Engineering quirks, the sort of anomalies that you check out rather than just say "eh, fire away, at worst it blows up". Fundamentals with new rocket designs, which require more caution. Delays from the payload people. Life is, after all, just a repeating series of delays.

Is this a problem of no accountability in government? No, this spans the board, for military, NASA, commercial launches, even amateur stuff. I started just by typing "[mission] launch delay" into a search engine.

deliberate blowing up of a rocket
Deliberate blowing up of a nuclear rocket

Until I got bored and quit, every single mission I typed in had hit a launch delay.

Try it for yourself! Just take a list of commercial satellite image providers and type "MISSION launch delay".

How do delays happen? Here's one case history, from a mission I worked with.

"We wish to inform you that the date for the launch of XTE has been postponed to October 12, 1995. The delay is necessary to provide sufficient time for the launch vehicle to be ready, and to allow for the time-critical launch of the Canadian RADARSAT satellite in the middle of September."

A great look at the complexity of launch scheduling is the STEREO status log. STEREO got shuffled around because of rocket issues, other missions coming up, and the fact it had a narrow but recurrent launch windows. You name it, and if it was out of the STEREO team's hands, it happened.

And recently, SDO launched. Ah, that's a mission desperately trying to get past the velvet rope into space. As put by SpaceFlight Now:

"The delay of NASA's next Mars mission will allow an $800 million solar observatory to move out of launch limbo and into an opening in the Atlas 5 rocket's manifest next October. [...] SDO was the victim of repeated delays in the Atlas 5 launch manifest over the past year. The issues were caused by both rocket troubles and problems with payloads. [...] The next available open slot on the Atlas 5 was in April 2010, more than a year after SDO was expected to be ready for launch."

And remember, this isn't just science launches. From the same article, "The Atlas 5 manifest is stacked with missions to launch payloads for the Air Force, NASA and commercial customers."

For "Project Calliope", I'm actually pretty confident on our launch. For government, commercial and private satellites alike, satellite users have a choice. They can go with a tried-and-true rocket, or take a chance with a new launcher that may have longer likely delays but typically adds some capability-- larger payload, better orbit, or lower cost. For Calliope, we're going with higher risk but lower cost.

Of higher importance is where you are on the launch queue, which is why (for Calliope) it was important to get onto their first payload manifest. The queue doesn't change, everyone just gets shifted. This is particularly harsh in Japan, where they have only two launch months a year (due to an agreement with the fishing industry!) So if you bump more than a few weeks in Japan, you drop to half a year later!

If there's one thing to learn with this project, it's that rocket science is still hard. It's like early aviation, and it takes risk to advance. As a result, most commercial satellite replacements plan to launch 'in a given quarter', not on a given date.

So it's more clear to say we're set to launch in first quarter 2011, than to give a specific month. We're on the queue for first launch, and we have our satellite kits so our instrument building can proceed apace. Personally, I'm glad to have the time-- gives me more time for integration and testing.

Until next week,

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