SpaceX Fall/Spring Plans Begin to Emerge

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Looking for a better day

SpaceX has been uncharacteristically, but perhaps none too surprisingly, quiet about its future plans in recent months as it has concentrated on the failure investigation of the June 28th loss of a Falcon 9 booster carrying the CRS-7 Dragon supply capsule to ISS.

Based on comments made by SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, as well as Vice President of Mission Assurance Hans Koenigsmann this week at the annual American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ conference being held in Pasadena, timelines for moving beyond the June disaster are beginning to emerge.

That failure, which took place on the 18th flight of the Falcon 9 series, and the 13th of the Falcon 9 V1.1, has been traced to the collapse of a strut supporting a helium pressurization bottle in the second stage liquid oxygen tank. Announcing the preliminary findings on July 20th, SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk stated that during the course of batch testing of struts which are provided by an outside vendor, engineers found several that failed well under the specified pressure load of 10,000 PSI.

While the final accident report has not been released, it is expected to come out some time in late October, marking a turning point in the process and the beginning of what will likely be a brief countdown for a return to flight.  One of the definitive points coming out of the AIAA conference comments is that the RTF vehicle will not be the Falcon 9 V1.1, but rather an upgraded version still unofficially designated V1.2, which will see the 9 Merlin 1-D engines operating at their full power capacity, representing a 30% increase in thrust. To some it might seem a bit of a risky endeavour to pencil in the higher thrust version of a booster which failed under “normal” thrust loads for such a critical launch, but its a pretty fair bet that after months of analysis which included an engineer “buddy check ” system as well as deep dives into each of its vendors, SpaceX will not see a similar incident occur. Instead, the risks will return to the much more familiar concerns of first stage engine failures of the sort which the original series Falcon 9 successfully overcame on its fourth flight.

As a practical matter, SpaceX was already racing to introduce the full power Falcon 9 in order to meet several commercial contracts beginning with the SES-9 mission, and prior to the CRS-7 incident, had indicated that the first flight would take place well before what now appears to be a November RTF date. To some extent, there may be no better time at which to introduce a more physically taxing booster than when coming off a period of the highest scrutiny company personnel have ever endured.

One project which was “deprioritized” during the course of the investigation was the oft-delayed introduction of the Falcon Heavy. According to reports from the conference, SpaceX is now eyeing an April or May 2016 launch date for the triple-core rocket  heavy lift rocket, one which will apparently take off without a paying customer on-board. While a late addition based on confidential negotiations is always possible, that either leaves room for more cubesats than have been launched into orbit to this date cumulatively, or several months of joyous space geek speculation of what you could do with a 53,000 kg to LEO booster taking off empty.  (If Congress, returning next week, fails to fully fund Commercial Crew, a sad outcome which appears increasingly likely, then the Innerspace vote goes to sending the FH second stage around the Moon and giving SLS obsessed space state representatives a preview of coming attractions)

As for the pad from Falcon Heavy will eventually lift off, NASA’s historic 39A, SpaceX expects to complete preparations this November in time to meet a Commercial Crew program milestone, and just maybe have a Heavy in place for initial fit-checks and first photo ops as a late Christmas present to space enthusiasts everywhere.

As we all know however, the best presents don’t always come in the largest packages, and on that note SpaceX’s Shotwell had an optimistic outlook that the company may still achieve a first stage landing, either on the ASDS or perhaps even on land, by the end of this year. One can hardly imagine a better way to close out a year which has seen so many ambitions delayed, but certainly not denied.

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1 Comment on "SpaceX Fall/Spring Plans Begin to Emerge"

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  1. I would plaster cameras all over the next falcon/dragon and stick them in every nook and cranny. There is nothing like a wee bit of video when its time to problem solve.

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