Flight Termination System Testing Drives Falcon 9 Schedule

by

WASHINGTON — Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) plans to attempt the maiden launch of its Falcon 9 rocket no sooner than May 8 following installation and test of the medium-class launcher’s flight termination system, which is designed to destroy the vehicle in case the launch goes awry, the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company said April 2.

SpaceX previously had reserved April 12 for the launch attempt.

“SpaceX is working closely with Ensign Bickford Aerospace & Defense Co., supplier of key components of the Flight Termination System (FTS) that will be used on Falcon 9, to complete testing of the FTS hardware and provide final data to SpaceX and Air Force Range safety officials for review and acceptance,” the company said in a statement sent to reporters. “Certification of the Falcon 9 FTS and subsequent range availability will put the first Falcon 9 test launch towards the latter half of the anticipated March-May window, with the first attempt no earlier than May 8, 2010.”

The Falcon 9’s payload for the launch, which will take place from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., is a prototype of the Dragon capsule the company has designed to carry cargo and eventually crews to the international space station.

Simsbury, Conn.-based Ensign-Bickford Aerospace & Defense has been testing the Falcon 9 FTS hardware for several months at the company’s facilities in Connecticut, Graham, Ky., and Moorpark, Calif., SpaceX spokeswoman Emily Shanklin told Space News |April 7.

“[Ensign-Bickford] has conducted several months of testing, but there is about one month of testing remaining for some components,” she said. “The number of tests remaining is a function of how well the test program goes.”

Shanklin said the full FTS will not be installed on the Falcon 9 “until all testing is complete and the data has been reviewed and accepted by Air Force range safety officials” at the U.S. Air Force’s 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.

Flight termination systems are designed to tear apart airborne missiles or launch vehicles in fight should they veer from their targeted path. The Air Force Eastern Range oversees launch operations at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, providing tracking, communications and safety services for all launches there. Range operations are managed by the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing, headquartered at Patrick, which is just south of Cape Canaveral.

Eric Brian, a spokesman for the 45th Space Wing, was unable to respond to media inquiries by press time.

Shanklin said the Falcon 9’s FTS components to be installed include the system’s receiver, batteries, initiators and actual ordnance, with the final electrical hookups and an end-to-end system test to be completed about four days prior to launch.

Shanklin said the FTS on the inaugural Falcon 9 launch uses a linear-shaped charge assembly mounted onto the exterior case that houses the rocket’s motors and liquid fuel tanks. Should the vehicle fly off course, the flight termination charges would be triggered, sending a focused energetic jet that would breach the motor housing, reducing its combustion pressure while breaking apart the case.

“The FTS is normally one of the last systems installed in the launch vehicle because of the use of explosives,” Shanklin said.

Although SpaceX plans to use the Ensign-Bickford FTS for the first Falcon 9 flight, Shanklin said the company weighed alternatives to it.

“Other options were considered, but this was determined to be the best option at this time,” Shanklin said. “We may consider alternate systems for future flights.”