SpaceX Targets February for Falcon 9 Maiden Flight

by

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has requested a Feb. 2 range date for the maiden flight of its Falcon 9 medium-lift rocket, according to a 90-day launch range forecast issued Oct. 28 by the U.S. Air Force’s 45th Space Wing.

But SpaceX’s proposed 11 a.m. EST liftoff would conflict with an already approved United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 launch of NASA’s Solar Dynamic Observatory, the range forecast shows.

Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX said in early October that it expects to deliver Falcon 9 flight hardware to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., launch facility in November and then launch one to three months later. Falcon 9’s debut was planned for 2007 but development of the rocket has taken longer than SpaceX expected.

SpaceX said in September that the inaugural Falcon 9 launch is a demonstration flight that will carry a prototype reusable cargo-carrying vehicle being developed with NASA funding help. The mission will provide aerodynamic and performance data on the Dragon capsule qualification unit, although the primary customer for the mission is a U.S. government entity SpaceX says it is not at liberty to name.

SpaceX officials have said the flight is not intended to count as one of the Dragon flight demos SpaceX is obliged to fly for NASA under its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement. That 2006 agreement promised SpaceX $278 million in incentive payments in exchange for three demonstrations of Dragon’s ability to deliver cargo to the international space station. The first demo was to have occurred in September 2008, followed by a second in June 2009 and a third in September 2009. In February 2008, SpaceX and NASA amended their COTS agreement, rescheduling the first Dragon demo flight for June 2009.

In addition to its COTS money, SpaceX received a $1.6 billion NASA contract in December 2008 to haul some 20 tons of cargo to the space station between 2011 and 2015.

While SpaceX works to get the first Falcon 9 off the ground, the company continues to press NASA and Congress for funding to modify Dragon and demonstrate its reliability as a crew-carrying vessel.

SpaceX Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk says that Dragon could be ready to carry crews within about three years from the time it gets the funding to make the necessary modifications, which include development of a launch escape system.

SpaceX spokeswoman Cassie Kloberdanz did not respond to a request for comment.