SpaceX Awaiting FAA Approval of Dragon Re-entry License

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WASHINGTON — Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is awaiting U.S. regulatory approval to launch its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo vessel as soon as Nov. 20 after more than a year spent tying up loose ends associated with the recoverable space capsule’s re-entry license application, which the company submitted in final form to federal regulators Oct. 29, according to government and industry sources.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates the launch and re-entry of commercial space vehicles, approved SpaceX’s request for a license covering the launch part of the mission Oct. 15.

However, FAA spokesman Hank Price said the agency is continuing to review the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company’s updated application for the re-entry license, which would be the first ever granted by the agency since Congress gave the FAA authority to license commercial re-entry vehicles in 2004.

“We’ve got the details of the launch set up but they have to come back to us for the re-entry license before this launch license is officially valid,” Price said in a Nov. 2 interview, noting that SpaceX originally submitted its application in April 2009. ”The caveat, with a lower-case ‘c’, is that when doing re-entry, the launch license really is not valid until you receive a re-entry license.”

Under its $278 million Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement with NASA, SpaceX is on the hook to complete three increasingly complex demonstration flights of the medium-lift Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule before beginning regular supply runs to the international space station next year. SpaceX holds a separate contract for those deliveries, which covers 12 flights and is valued at $1.6 billion.

The Falcon 9 rocket has flown once successfully with a qualification unit of the Dragon onboard. The capsule, built to ferry low-value cargo to and from the space station, is designed to be recovered after each mission and reused.

The first COTS demonstration mission is now scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., no earlier than Nov. 20. Price said the FAA is still reviewing a number of key pieces of information about the re-entry that it requested in June 2009 but did not receive until Oct. 29, 2010.

Although he declined to specify the FAA’s concern, Price said the lag between the agency’s request over a year ago and the company’s ability to provide all necessary information was not unexpected, and that a decision on the application could come as early as the week of Nov. 8.

“We’ve been working with  [SpaceX] for a while now, and there’s been a lot of back and forth in terms of exchanging what we need [and] what they’re providing,” he said. “We fully expect to be able to meet the deadlines they’ve set.”

SpaceX’s original COTS agreement with NASA called for the first Falcon 9-Dragon demonstration to occur in September 2008, but development of the hardware has taken longer than planned.

In the second half of this year alone, the company has announced a half-dozen target time slots for the mission, including dates in October and November that were approved by the U.S. Eastern Range, despite lacking FAA approval for Dragon’s re-entry. The mission profile calls for the Dragon to complete up to four Earth orbits, transmit telemetry data, receive commands, maneuver, re-enter the atmosphere and make a safe water landing in the Pacific Ocean for recovery.

SpaceX spokeswoman Kirstin Brost said the company has been working closely with FAA to provide information necessary for the re-entry license approval, and that the most recent data submitted to the agency “is the result of pre-launch integrated systems tests — tests that are run on the final flight vehicle at the Cape,” she said in a Nov. 5 e-mail, pointing out that Dragon is a new development program. “As we get closer to launch, we have a constant inflow of new data, which is then shared with the FAA. We are excited by the prospect of being the first commercial company in history to be licensed to return a spacecraft from orbit.”

However, in a Nov. 3 e-mail Brost said the latest Falcon 9 launch date could slip again “if we think further testing makes sense,” and noted that the company’s October decision to delay the launch from Nov. 8 to Nov. 18 — there has since been a two-day slip to Nov. 20 — was made in order to conduct additional tests of the space capsule.

The current tests are ongoing, Brost said.

NASA spokesman Joshua Byerly said SpaceX’s Nov. 8 launch date was pushed back to “due to a variety of factors associated with building a new spacecraft,” and that the FAA is currently assessing the risk to public safety for vehicle re-entry, “just like they always do.”