SpaceX Aims To Debut New Version of Falcon 9 this Summer

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WASHINGTON – SpaceX plans to inaugurate its new, more-powerful Falcon 9 rocket this summer, using the same Merlin 1D engine with a modified fuel mix and other changes to extend the company’s planned reuse of the first stage to cover all SpaceX launches, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said.

In March 16 and 17 appearances at the Satellite 2015 conference here, Shotwell said the new-version Falcon 9, which has yet to be named, will be about 30 percent more powerful than the rocket’s current version.

Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX’s plans to reuse its Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage have been carried out so far by attempted landings in the ocean and on an unmanned ocean barge following launches into low Earth orbit.

The Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket needs more power to perform the same maneuver after a launch carrying a telecommunications satellite to geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers over the equator, thus the need for the upgraded engine.

Shotwell said the company stopped full qualification of the Merlin 1D engine’s capabilities to keep the first Falcon 9 v1.1 flights on schedule. But the qualification work has continued.

“We’ve gone back and gotten that performance on the engine to place it on the vehicle,” Shotwell said. “So we’ve got a higher-thrust engine. We’ve finished development on that and are going into qual [qualification testing]. What we’re also doing is modifying the structure a little bit.”

As it adopts the new-version Falcon 9 and prepares for the inaugural flight — still scheduled for late this year — of its Falcon Heavy rocket, SpaceX wants to limit its production line to two versions of the rocket’s core.

“Falcon Heavy is two different cores — the inner core and the two side sticks,” Shotwell said. “The new Falcon 9 will basically be a Falcon Heavy side booster. So we’re building [only two different] cores to make sure we don’t have a bunch of configurations around the factory so we can streamline operations and hit a launch cadence of one or two a month from every launch site we have.”

The upgraded Falcon 9, Shotwell said, will make its inaugural flight this summer. Customer SES of Luxembourg has said it is willing to be the first customer for the launch of a 5,300-kilogram telecommunications satellite to geostationary orbit.

Shotwell said the new-version Falcon 9 will not force the company to begin a lengthy new process of certifying the vehicle with NASA and the U.S. Defense Department to carry those agencies’ high-value payloads.

The current Falcon 9 v1.1 is in the middle of a U.S. government certification process that began about a year ago and is expected to be finished by midyear. Once that is completed, further rocket enhancements will be treated as modifications not requiring the same detailed review by the government agencies.

“There will be iterations that go on from there, but they will be certified as changes. It won’t be certified as an entirely new rocket,” Shotwell said.

“Nearly half of the activity for certification is certifying SpaceX as a company — our manufacturing processes, our quality control, our launch sites and our launch processes,” she said. “In fact this has taken a majority of the time, to understand how we do business. That doesn’t change with the rocket, and in fact that doesn’t change when we go from a Falcon 9 single stick to a Falcon Heavy.

“So certification, while it might be an iterative process, becomes quicker and quicker to certify vehicle changes.”

SpaceX postponed the scheduled March 21 launch of a telecommunications satellite for Turkmenistan because of an unspecified suspected anomaly in the helium pressurization tanks that are on both the first and second stage. The discovery was made not on the vehicle itself but on tanks being reviewed in the production facility.

“We were doing some component stress testing over the weekend and got a little uncomfortable with the helium pressure bottles,” Shotwell said. “It passed inspection, but we’re going to go and do some work on the bottles and delay the flight. I don’t have a time frame right now, and we have back-to-back missions … that we want to fly before the 17th of April.”

One industry official said the Turkmenistan launch would be pushed to late April, allowing SpaceX to launch a Dragon cargo vehicle to the International Space Station for NASA before April 17.

Shotwell also addressed range-safety issues in returning a Falcon 9 stage to a launch site and how the company maintains a corporate culture of risk mitigation even after 16 largely successful missions. Most of the company’s workforce of more than 4,000 employees was not there to witness the early Falcon 1 failures.

 On safety issues relating to the return of a Falcon 9 first stage:

“It’s more a range safety activity. We basically have to get clearance from the range. I think the Eastern Range is going to let us, but they’d like to see us land on the drone ship first. But they have their finger on the button.

“If you think about the decision-making before you blow up a launch vehicle for safety reasons, on ascent it’s a harder decision. You’ve got a payload onboard. Someone’s bird is not getting to orbit if you press the Command Destruct button.

“If you hit Destruct an incoming stage, it’s an experiment at this point anyhow, it doesn’t have a ton of fuel on it, it’s probably going to hit a barge. You can imagine if a rocket with a bunch of fuel hit a building, there would be a huge explosion. You can be a little twitchier with your finger on the button for incoming.”

On restarting development of the Falcon 1 rocket given the increasing demand for small-satellite launch options:

“There’s no question that the market is larger for a vehicle that size. But we can accommodate secondaries on Falcon 9.”

On maintaining a risk-averse corporate culture when most employees have never lived through a launch failure:

“The vast majority of our employees were not around during the hard times through 2008. We do talk about the three Falcon 1 failures pretty regularly. We show video of the failures within the company. It is really important to know how hard this is, so you do anything you can to make sure the next flight is going to go off successfully.”

On U.S. Air Force certification of the Falcon 9 v1.1:

“We’ve definitely turned a corner. We’ve been working really well with them since we hit certification hard, which really started last March or April. So we’ve only been at it a year.

“Generals [Ellen] Pawlikowski and [Samuel A.] Greaves [the former and current chiefs of the U.S. Space and Missile Systems Center at the Air Force Space Command’s Los Angeles Air Force Base] have really pushed their teams hard to try to make them aware of how alternate ways of doing business are OK.

“Just because we do things differently doesn’t mean we don’t do them well — especially given the success we’ve had to date. So the Air Force has been working really hard. It’s going really well and I anticipate being certified very shortly.”

On the pad abort test of the upgraded Dragon capsule, being redesigned to carry astronauts starting in 2017:

“I was going to do it after the [Turkmenistan] and NASA missions. Given the recent delays, I’m not quite sure. I think it’ll be ready to go in just a couple of weeks. So it’s going to be a mater of what, where and when. All three are going from [launch pad] SLC 40.”

On the Falcon Heavy rocket’s inaugural flight:

“Later this year. The pad will be ready for it by September or October of this year. We’ll get it launched as quickly as we can. We don’t really have customer launches until mid-2016, so we’re still working off margin, which is nice.”

On expanding its production facilities:

“We keep extending the facility in the Hawthorne area, in Los Angeles County. I feel like I sign a lease every month or six weeks for a new facility. We should be able to produce 40 cores a year in that factory.”