With NASA Certification, SpaceX Falcon 9 Means More Science, Less Costs

While SpaceX’s long running efforts to achieve certification for launching national security payloads under the EELV program have received a great deal of press attention, a similar, but far less contentions process has been underway at NASA.

On Friday afternoon came the word that the SpaceX Falcon 9 V1.1 has finally been certified to launch medium risk NASA science mission payloads through the agency’s NLS II contract. The announcement comes as the company is counting down to the launch of the Jason-3 mission from Vandenberg in July, and that fact reflects the different approach NASA has taken to certifying new providers as compared to the Air Force.

Under NLS-II provisions, which were put in place partly as a response to the forced retirement of the popular Delta II by United Launch Alliance, it has been possible for a vendor to receive a launch order prior to being formally certified as ready to perform the work, a policy which explains why SpaceX is only two months away from one science mission, and has also been awarded a launch contract for the TESS spacecraft as well.

The Air Force, depending on your perspective, has until very recently taken a much more arbitrary position which required all certification work to be completed before granting an award. The consequence of this approach is that with an average three year time frame from award to launch, the Air Force policy has effectively delayed competition further than might be strictly necessary.

In the case of the NASA certification however, SpaceX itself contributed to the delayed entry by changing the design of the Falcon 9 from the original Merlin 1C powered version which performed the first 5 launches, to the Merlin 1D powered Falcon V1.1 which has gone on to make the next 13 flights. NASA’s requirement for Category 2, Medium risk launches required 3 flights of a common design, which in this case means the current Falcon 9 equipped with the standard 5.2 meter payload fairing and a 56.2″ payload interface. Besides the launch vehicles, payloads themselves have their own categories of risk; A-D, which means that even within an overall launch category, some missions may go to what is perceived as the more reliable vehicle.

Reaching the next level, which is for Category 3, high-risk missions, such as those rare spacecraft with nuclear power systems, can be achieved in three different ways, depending on how much NASA analysis SpaceX wants to endure. It can be achieved either by performing 14 flights with a lower level of scrutiny, six flights with a medium level, or three more with deep oversight including “fishbone” analysis and hardware qualification.

For SpaceX, whose Falcon 9 upper stage lacks some of the performance of rival ULA’s Atlas V, it will be particularly important to achieve Category 2 and 3 certification for Falcon Heavy as soon as practically possible, although the relative paucity of high risk NASA payloads in coming years suggests doing so might be more important for the potential it signifies than the projected awards it could win.

Following a successful Pad Abort Test for Commercial Crew earlier this month, SpaceX founder Elon Musk suggested that the Falcon Heavy equipped with automated Dragon could open up solar system exploration as far out as Europa. Achieving certification would be one small step in driving such a change in exploration strategy, provided Congress does not keep mandating SLS for science missions as it is currently attempting to do with a possible Europa mission.

In the meantime, the certification of the single core Falcon 9 for science missions will likely come as a relief to project planners who can now begin to consider the possibility of acquiring launch services for their missions for what could easily average a 50% lower price than today’s Atlas V. The net result will be more science, and ultimately more science missions.


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