Falcon 9 Upgrade
An upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, carrying 11 Orbcomm satellites. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — SpaceX plans to ramp up the production and launch of its Falcon 9 rocket this year while introducing its Falcon Heavy rocket and completing a key test of its commercial crew vehicle, the company’s president said Feb. 3.

“It’s a really interesting year for us,” Gwynne Shotwell said in a speech at the Federal Aviation Administration’s annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference, citing work on the company’s launch vehicles, Dragon spacecraft and launch facilities.

One area of emphasis was accelerating the production and launch rate for the Falcon 9. “We’ve had the luxury in years past of having to build only a few rockets a year,” she said, “so we really weren’t in a production mode.” Last year would have been the first to require a high production rate of the rocket, she said, had it not been for the June launch failure that halted flights for nearly six months.

“Now we’re in this factory transformation to go from building six or eight a year to about 18 cores a year. By the end of this year we should be at over 30 cores per year,” she said. “So you see the factory start to morph.”

Those changes, she said, include doubling the number of first stages that can be assembled at one time from three to six. The company is also working to accelerate production of the Merlin engines that power the Falcon 9 since, at the higher production rates planned for this year, the company will need to build hundreds of engines a year.

That accelerated production, she said, is needed to support SpaceX’s growing manifest of launches. “We’re busy. We’ve got a big manifest, a lot of customers to go take care of,” she said.

SpaceX’s launch schedule, and its ability to take care of its customers, has been a topic of concern in the industry. The company has yet to announce a launch date for its next mission, carrying the SES-9 communications satellite, with speculation that the launch might slip into March.

Shotwell, after her conference speech, said SpaceX plans to launch SES-9 “in the next couple of weeks.” The company then plans to maintain a high flight rate. “You should see us fly every two to three weeks,” she said.

While SpaceX plans to increase production of the Falcon 9, she suggested the company was still making changes to the vehicle. The Dec. 21 launch of 11 Orbcomm satellites was the first flight of an upgraded, or “full thrust,” version of the vehicle, and also the first time the company successfully landed the rocket’s first stage as part of its reusability efforts.

The latest changes, she said, came after a static fire test of the first stage Jan. 15 at Cape Canaveral. “We fired it up, and actually learned something about the rocket,” she said, without elaborating on what the company learned. “We’re going to make some mods based on what we saw on that stage landing and firing.”

She offered fewer details about the status of the company’s larger Falcon Heavy rocket. That rocket will launch later this year, although she declined to give a more specific schedule for that first launch. Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of SpaceX, said Jan. 30 that the vehicle “is supposed to launch toward the end of this year. I’d say maybe late September.”

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell. Credit: SpaceX
“We’re going to make some mods [to the Falcon 9] based on what we saw on that stage landing and firing,” Shotwell said. Credit: SpaceX

Falcon Heavy will launch from Launch Complex 39A, the former shuttle and Apollo launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center that SpaceX is leasing. Work to renovate the pad to support Falcon Heavy and crewed Falcon 9 launches is wrapping up, Shotwell said.

“We have completed and activated Launch Complex 39A,” she said. However, she added that the company still had more work to do on the pad this year to support crewed Falcon 9 flights.

Those crewed Falcon 9 flights are still on schedule to begin in 2017. Shotwell said the company is planning an in-flight abort test of the Crew Dragon spacecraft before the end of this year, where the vehicle uses its thrusters to separate from a Falcon 9 rocket during ascent. That will be followed in 2017 by two demonstration flights to the International Space Station, the first without a crew and the second with astronauts on board, and then the first operational mission.

Shotwell also provided an update on SpaceX’s plans to develop a commercial launch site near Brownsville, Texas. The company held a groundbreaking ceremony at the site, on the Gulf Coast, in September 2014, but that effort has kept a low profile since then.

Construction of the new launch complex, she said, has been affected by poor soil stability at the site. That’s required the company to do two years of “dirt work” there, bringing in and packing down soil before it can build the launch facilities.

“It’s a little more expensive than what we were originally planning, but it will be an important site for us,” she said, allowing the company to avoid congestion at other launch ranges. She later said the company was planning to perform the first launch from the Brownsville site in late 2017 or early 2018.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...