One of the challenges standing between SpaceX and the debut of the Falcon 9 V1.1 is completing testing of the enormous payload fairing which will protect commercial spacecraft on rides to orbit aboard the new booster. The 5.2 meter diameter fairing with a 13.9 meter usable length which will be among the largest in the world, is built by SpaceX and is likely to offer some tanatalizing possibilities when finally sitting atop the Falcon Heavy.
Successful fairing separation is a frequent source of heartache for launch companies and their customers, as witnessed by two consecutive fairing failures by Orbital Sciences on the Taurus XL launch vehicle, which resulted in the loss of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory and Glory spacecraft in 2009 and 2011 respectively. Altogether the American taxpayer lost over $700 million between the two accidents, a fact which strongly serves to incentivize both NASA Launch Services and the U.S. Air Force to remain with more expensive but proven launch solutions until reliability is demonstrated in action.
Despite all it accomplished with the original Falcon 9 over its 5 launch history, a conventional fairing separation was not one of them, as the first flight carried a test article in the profile of the Dragon spacecraft, with the next four flights carrying Dragon itself. Consequently, in addition to introducing the new, upgraded booster on its next flight, SpaceX will also be deploying a large fairing for the first time. The previous Falcon 1 successfully deployed its small, two-part fairing on four occasions, including two flights in which the second stage failed to reach orbit. Nevertheless, with a great deal on the line, SpaceX is not taking any chances, and so it is currently conducting fairing separation tests in NASA’s enormous Plum Brook vacuum chamber in Sandusky, Ohio, part of the Glenn Research Center. One hundred feet in diameter and one hundred twenty two feet tall, the vacuum chamber is the largest in the world and an indispensable tool the nation’s space agency provides to both commercial and public space development efforts. While it is all too easy to portray the SpaceX story, often seen as the vanguard of the NewsSpace movement, as separate and apart from NASA’s sprawling infrastructure, in reality the line is quite a bit more blurred, and more interesting. Beginning with the COTS and CRS programs and now extending into its commercial efforts, SpaceX and NASA are redefining the way the public and private sector interact in the development of space technology. And they are certainly not the only ones; Blue Origin for example, is also making use of NASA facilities, performing engine testing at NASA Stennis. As for Orbital Sciences, the upcoming COTS sponsored launch of its Antares rocket, a vehicle whose name was changed from the original Taurus II in an effort to create separation from failed legacy of the Taurus XL, offers a chance to start off on a clean slate with an all new fairing and high hopes that it can begin to pursue new launch opportunities.