WASHINGTON — Space Exploration Technologies () Corp. said Sept. 24 it will launch a prototype of its reusable Dragon cargo capsule on the maiden flight of the Falcon 9 rocket the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company still hopes to conduct this year.
“The initial test flight will carry our Dragon spacecraft qualification unit … providing us with valuable aerodynamic and performance data for the Falcon 9 configuration that will fly on the following [Commercial Orbital Transportation Services] and [Commercial Resupply Services] missions for NASA,” SpaceX announced in an update sent to media.
Dragon is a reusable capsule SpaceX has been developing under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program since 2006 to carry cargo to the international space station. In December, SpaceX won a $1.6 billion NASA Commercial Resupply Services contract to conduct 12 cargo flights to the station by the end of 2016.
SpaceX said in 2005 that it had sold Falcon 9’s inaugural launch to a U.S. government customer it was not permitted to name, prompting speculation that the customer is an intelligence agency since the U.S. Air Force publicly announces launch contracts even when the payloads are classified.
Falcon 9’s debut was supposed to have happened in 2007, but development of the rocket and its smaller sibling, the Falcon 1, has taken longer than planned.
In its Sept. 24 update, SpaceX said Falcon 9’s upcoming debut is still considered a test flight and will not count as one of three Dragon demonstration flights it is obliged to fly under its $278 million COTS agreement with NASA. That agreement called for SpaceX to conduct Dragon’s first flight in September 2008 and conclude the three-flight demonstration program one year later with a flight to the international space station.
SpaceX now says its COTS demos will officially begin with the second Falcon 9 flight “where we will demonstrate Dragon’s orbital maneuvering, communication and re-entry capabilities.”
SpaceX said it expects to have the first Falcon 9 fully assembled on its pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., in November, but cautioned that the actual launch may not occur until three months later.
“The actual launch date will depend on a variety of factors, including weather and the overall launch schedule at the Cape, so that is a little harder to predict,” SpaceX said. “Based on prior experience, launch could be anywhere from one to three months after Falcon 9 is integrated at the Cape in November.”
Falcon 9 launch preparations are taking place as the White House and NASA mull over the recommendations of an expert panel that called for relying on the commercial sector — meaning companies like SpaceX — to transport cargo and astronauts to low Earth orbit.
SpaceX designed Dragon from the beginning to be able to accommodate astronaut crews, even going so far as to include windows on a vehicle that will debut as a cargo tug. SpaceX says the Dragon can be made ready to carry astronauts within three years of the time it receives the necessary funding.
NASA so far has committed $50 million to a so-called Commercial Crew Development program that seeks to accelerate the development of commercial human space transportation systems. Proposals for that money were due Sept. 22. NASA expects to make one or more awards in November. SpaceX was one of roughly two dozen companies that had told NASA by early September they intended to go after the money.