SpaceX Sends Air Force an Outline for Falcon Heavy Certification

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — SpaceX says it sent the U.S. Air Force an updated letter of intent April 14 outlining a certification process for its Falcon Heavy rocket to launch national security satellites.

SpaceX hopes to have its Falcon Heavy rocket certified by 2017, Gwynne Shotwell, the company’s president and chief operating officer, told SpaceNews in an April 14 interview.

The Falcon Heavy consists of three Falcon 9 rocket cores whose combined 27 Merlin 1D engines will help lift 53,000 kilograms of payload to low Earth Orbit or 21,000 kilograms to geosynchronous transfer orbit, the destination for most commercial communications satellites. A demo launch from Cape Canaveral, Forida, is slated for later this year.

SpaceX released an animation Jan. 27 depicting its Falcon Heavy rocket lifting off from Kennedy's Launch Complex 39A. Credit: SpaceX screenshot
SpaceX animation depicting its Falcon Heavy rocket lifting off from Kennedy’s Launch Complex 39A. Credit: SpaceX screenshot

In its letter to the Air Force, SpaceX detailed a certification process that would include three successful flights of the rocket, including two consecutive successful flights, Shotwell said. This is similar to the launch requirements SpaceX chose for the Air Force to validate its Falcon 9 rocket.

Air Force officials are expected to certify the Falcon 9 rocket to launch military and spy satellites by June, but the process has taken months longer than either party expected and been hindered by the terms of a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement, or CRADA, signed in 2013.

For Falcon Heavy, Shotwell said she wants the process to be “more of a conversation.“

“What we found is the rigidity of the CRADA we signed in 2013 really got in the way of the Air Force’s and SpaceX’s ability to certify,” she said. “It was very rigid and structured.”

As a result, SpaceX is also expecting a smoother process, applying “lessons learned” from Falcon 9 certification and its 19 engineering review boards.

Shotwell said because the Air Force already has audited SpaceX’s manufacturing processes, the Air Force should need fewer review boards since the Heavy will be built the same way as the Falcon 9 cores that comprise its main stage.

SpaceX’s public manifest includes five Falcon Heavy launches but does not show dates. In addition to the demo, SpaceX also has Heavy launches lined up for commercial satellite fleet operators Inmarsat, Intelsat and ViaSat and the Air Force’s Space Test Program.

Shotwell said she expects the Falcon Heavy rocket to fly once this year, three times in 2016 and three to five times in 2017.

“The market is huge,” she said. “The market is bigger in the commercial marketplace than it is for the single stick Falcon 9.”