SpaceX Planning Dragon Re-Flight as well as Falcon Upgrades


Improvements Coming Credit SpaceX

Improvements Coming
Credit SpaceX

A speech by SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell at the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Conference yesterday revealed a number of details regarding the company’s plans for the next two years as well as some interesting, if decidedly vague results from studying its recently recovered rocket.

Without going into specifics, Shotwell stated that based on the recovery and brief test firing of the first stage which lofted the OG-2 mission on December 21st, SpaceX would be making some changes to the booster. Although not specifically stated, the remarks seemed to suggest that the changes will not be limited to improving the prospects for re-flight, but also in improving the overall reliability of the Falcon 9. It is not a trivial point. Regardless of whether or not the company chooses to make any changes public, there is no doubt that they will be shared with both the Air Force and NASA, underscoring the unique insights made possible by recovery, and bolstering the Falcon 9’s chances in future head to dead competitions with the fully expendable but extremely reliable ULA Atlas-V.

On the subject of recovery, Shotwell also reminded the audience that after “sticking the landing” at sea on the Jason-3 launch, the last Falcon 9 V1.1  fell over due to a failed leg which was not as robust as that which is already being used on Falcon 9 Full Thrust and played a part in the Orbcomm recovery.

While SpaceX is certainly devoting a great deal of effort into developing rapidly reusable rockets, it is not counting on them to fill its manifest either. According to Shotwell, the Hawthorne factory is currently “morphing” into production mode, going from 18 to 3o cores per year, with the capability of building 6 first stages simultaneously. Merlin 1-D engine production will increase to as many as 500 per year, with enhanced automation to the assembly line playing a key role. The long term goal she said, is to be flying every week, if not several times per week.

Regarding Commercial Crew, Spacex is on track to perform two test flights next year, the first of which will be unmanned, with the second carrying astronauts. One major milestone along the way, an in-flight abort test, should take place later this year. Also coming as something of a surprise, SpaceX plans to re-fly a Dragon spacecraft sometime this year as well. On this point there were no details offered other than the observation that refurbishing the current cargo configuration of the Dragon is somewhat difficult.

Responding to a question about the triple core Falcon Heavy rocket which SpaceX is planning to introduce on a test flight sometime in the fall, Shotwell disclosed that the company will not be using propellant cross-feed for the time being, partly due to a lack of demand for the kind of increased performance which it could provide. On a related note, SpaceX will soon be publishing increased performance numbers for Falcon Heavy based on the use of the Full Thrust version for the cores.

Although obviously never mentioned, those numbers, which could come in the next few days, may be the source of an additional headache for NASA’s Space Launch System. Currently the Falcon Heavy is listed at 53,000 kg to LEO whereas SLS in the current Block 1 configuration comes in at 70,000 kg.

The complete speech is below, and includes an entertaining montage of Falcon 9 landing failures, followed by the joyous reaction of SpaceX employees as the Orbcomm booster comes in for its historic landing on December 21st.



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4 Comments on "SpaceX Planning Dragon Re-Flight as well as Falcon Upgrades"

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  1. The change in plans regarding the F9H crossfeed was interesting- Not needed by current customers.

    Also anxious to see the Official F9H numbers when they come out.

  2. Michael Smith says:

    SpaceX is proving with each milestone in its evolution that it is a company that is replacing NASA as the organization for human expansion into the solar system. Where NASA meanders around like a man without deep seated passion for the work it is doing, SpaceX surges forward with a drive and enthusiasm that is so passionately reflected by its staff’s wild, unbridled celebration with every launch.

    As someone who grew up during the excitement of the Apollo program and the promise of human exploration into the solar system, SpaceX has rekindled dreams that NASA failed to quench and continues to frustrate. Should SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy prove to equal or outperform NASA’s SLS, it would make NASA irrelevant as far as human spaceflight is concerned. The ever growing reality is that NASA, in the face of private company interest in spaceflight, no longer has a need to be actively involved in manned space exploration. Its proposed missions are pointless. They have no real direction. They are manned missions for the sake of manned missions. Funds being wasted on these programs would be better spent on unmanned exploration, which would establish a footing in and understanding the solar system in preparation for future human exploration. NASA needs to assist private companies with there plans for manned spaceflight and to fulfill NASA’s needs for manned spaceflight. NASA is trying to repeat the past, whilst SpaceX is reaching for the future.

    • Brandon says:

      While I agree with your enthusiasm for SpaceX, I’m not sure I understand the basis for your disparage of NASA. Since when does NASA have “manned missions for the sake of manned missions”? What manned missions does it even have? The only manned missions NASA performs are those to the ISS where it carries out very specific, important, and intentional research. They aren’t just putting people in space just to put people in space. That would be a huge waste of money and when it comes to NASA, every dollar counts.

      You also claim NASA should instead focus on unmanned exploration. I should remind you then that this is almost entirely what NASA does. Go look up the list of currently running or planned projects being undertaken by NASA and you’ll see almost all of them are unmanned. This includes things like the Mars rovers (currently active ones as well as planned ones), Dawn, JWST, Cassini, Voyager I and II, New Horizons, Juno, Hubble, Jason, … The list goes on and on. All of these are exploring everything in our solar system such as the planets, moons, asteroids, Sun, etc. as well as the deepest reaches of space.

      Your claim that “NASA needs to assist private companies with there (should be their) plans for manned spaceflight” also seems to display a woeful lack of awareness of the CRS1 and CRS2 missions NASA is currently running. These exactly fulfill your statement about what you think NASA should be doing. They are providing billions of dollars for the private sector to resupply the ISS with supplies and people and in the process, advance their own capabilities and technologies. Without the CRS contracts, SpaceX might not exist today as you know it.

      So in the end, I fail to see why you seem intent to cast NASA aside when it is so expertly performing every task you admonished it for not performing.

      • Michael Smith says:

        Thanks for the reply Brandon. Dialogue about space exploration is critical at this stage in the evolution to a commercial based exploration of space.What I was attempting address was the future of manned exploration into deep space rather the present LEO missions.

        You made the point about what manned missions NASA has. My reference to manned missions was to NASA’s future missions to an asteroid etc. At the moment even this mission is under threat. This objective of flying to an asteroid has no long term purpose – so it is in that context it is a mission for the sake of a mission. Mercury, Gemini and Apollo all had a combined objective that was able to survive changes of administration. The moon missions were a one-off. NASA is now constantly subject to political change – thus the constant shifting in direction. Even the ISS went through numerous changes and had to survive a constant threat to its creation. Human space exploration demands long term planning – something NASA is politically incapable of doing – unlike that of a commercial company.

        My reference to unmanned exploration was to say that NASA should concentrate primarily on this area of its operations and abandon any further expenditure on manned exploration. This would increase NASA’s capacity for unmanned exploration and enhance the scientific capability of the machines. There are many proposals for unmanned exploration, which would reap a lot of benefits for future manned exploration, that cannot not be undertaken because of a lack of funding. The network of ground stations in NASA’s DSN that are critical to the support of unmanned missions has been under constant pressure to operate due to budget cuts. These stations should be a top priority but are being treated like an add-on rather than a critical element.

        Yes NASA is working with private industry to establish its manned spacecraft needs and ISS supply requirements. What I was talking about is the long term future of manned space exploration. Missions to the ISS are short term – not long term. There is no future through CRS for manned exploration beyond LEO. SpaceX (and hopefully other companies) has long term plans that NASA could assist with. These long term plans will need the support of the DSN network that is under threat operationally from budget cuts.

        If NASA stepped down from pursuing manned space exploration, the future of human presence in deep space would be stronger. It would create a two pronged approach that would be adequately funded (?) to pave the way for human establishments on the moon, mars and elsewhere. NASA would be free to focus on unmanned space exploration and the commercial sector on manned exploration. This way optimizes the potential for human space exploration. What matters is getting man into space – not who does it. NASA will not get man into deep space as a long term endeavor. Politics will stop that. ISS will end and then there will be nothing but short term missions with no long term benefits or objectives.

        As someone who grew up during the excitement of Apollo, I never considered I would have this position but reality demands that NASA accept that its manned exploration days are over and that it would be of more value to manned exploration via its unmanned exploration. The latter would answer questions critical to manned exploration like Surveyor did for Apollo. It is not so much casting NASA aside as refocusing its direction for the benefit human exploration of space. NASA’s expenditure on manned spaceflight is undermining its potential of scientific discovery and as a vanguard for human space exploration into deep space through unmanned exploration. The current scenario of NASA working in both manned and unmanned space exploration is only weakening its position as an organization tasked with expanding man’s presence in deep space. That’s the reality.

        As a long time supporter of NASA, and as someone who work for the organization, I thank you Brandon for jumping to NASA’s defense. Keep the passion burning.

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