SpaceX Says Falcon 9 Upgrade Won’t Require New Certification

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WASHINGTON — SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell on March 16 said the company’s introduction this year of a more-powerful Falcon 9, designed to permit the company to recover the rocket’s first stage for future reuse, will not begin another long process of U.S. government certification.

Addressing the Satellite 2015 conference here, Shotwell said Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX still expects certification of its current Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket by the U.S. Air Force and NASA by the middle of this year.

For the improved-version rocket, now expected to make its first flight this summer carrying a commercial telecommunications satellite for SES of Luxembourg, the company’s goal is to add between 15 and 20 percent to the current rocket’s performance.

The current engine and fuel configuration does not carry the requisite power to carry a heavy telecommunications satellite to geostationary orbit while also reserving fuel to perform the landing on a SpaceX offshore platform.

Shotwell said about half of the certification issues being worked by the two U.S. government agencies relate to the company’s specific practices in building its rockets, and not to any specific rocket design. Because of that, she said, the more-powerful Falcon 9 is unlikely to force a renewed certification process.

“It is an iterative process [with the agencies],” Shotwell said. “It will become quicker and quicker to certify” new versions of the vehicle.

The current certification process, which required a certain number of flights of the Falcon 9 v1.1, is needed for SpaceX to launch satellites for the U.S. military and NASA, starting with the Jason 3 U.S.-European ocean-altimetry satellite, to be launched later this year.