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SpaceX’s Busy To-Do List for Rest of 2015

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
March 23, 2015
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SpaceX vehicle integration building at Pad 39A. (Credit: NASA)

SpaceX vehicle integration building at Pad 39A. (Credit: NASA)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell was making the rounds last week in Washington, D.C., speaking before the Satellite 2015 conference and a House Armed Services subcommittee meeting. Much of the focus was on the latter, where Shotwell engaged in a she said-he said battle over launch costs with United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno.

More interesting were the updates Shotwell provided on SpaceX’s plans for 2015 and beyond. What emerged is just how crowded the company’s agenda is for the rest of the year. The table below provides a summary.

12 Falcon 9 Launches Cape Canaveral, Vandenberg December
Upgraded Falcon 9 launch Cape Canaveral TBD
Successful Falcon 9 first stage recovery Atlantic Ocean TBD
Test flight of recovered booster Spaceport America TBD
Falcon Heavy Maiden Launch Kennedy Space Center TBD
Defense & NASA Launch Certification
Washington June
NASA CRS2 Contract Award
Washington June
9 Commercial Crew Milestones
Cape Canaveral, Vandenberg, Hawthorne December
On-pad Dragon abort test (CCiCap) Cape Canaveral
In-flight Dragon abort test (CCiCap) Vandenberg TBD
7 CCtCap Milestones Hawthorne, Various December
Texas Spaceport Development
Boca Chica Beach (Near Brownsville, Texas) All Year

Record Number of Launches

Falcon 9 launch (Credit: SpaceX)

Falcon 9 launch (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX is aiming for 13 orbital launches this year, including the introduction of a more powerful Falcon 9 and the debut of the 28-engine Falcon Heavy launcher. The company is also aiming to complete on-pad and in-flight abort tests for its crewed Dragon spacecraft.

Thirteen orbital flights would more than double the six launches the company achieved in 2014. Through March, SpaceX has notched three successful Falcon 9 launches.

Whether they get to 13 launches remains uncertain. The schedule has already suffered a hiccup, with a month-long delay in the launch of the TurkmenAlem52E/MonacoSat 1 satellite from March 21 to April 24. The problem? Helium. It’s the same issue SpaceX had last year that contributed to a reduction in the number of planned flights from 10 or 11 to six. The company had brought helium tank production in house, and things didn’t  go exactly according to plan.

Shotwell said that to enable the increased launch rate, SpaceX has increased production of Merlin 1-D engines. The company plans to produce 180 engines this year, 240 in 2016 and 400 the following year, she said.

SpaceX will introduce an upgraded version of the Falcon 9 this summer with the launch of a satellite for SES. The upgraded booster will be about 30 percent more powerful than the current version. The extra performance will allow SpaceX to launch communications satellites to geosynchronous orbit while at the same time landing the first stage for refurbishment and reuse.

Falcon 9 Recovery

Credit: SpaceX

Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX came tantalizingly close to landing a Falcon 9 first stage on a floating barge the first time out in January. It’s highly likely the company will succeed in an attempt later this year. Shotwell said the company will attempt landings on the next two Dragon commercial resupply missions, which are scheduled for April and June.

Once a first stage is recovered intact, SpaceX plans to ship it to a test facility located at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico. Engineers will then put the stage through test flights to determine the limits of the hardware.

SpaceX will eventually recycle first stages for orbital launches. Future plans also include landing Falcon 9 first stages at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Vandenberg Air Force Base instead of on an off-shore barge.  It’s not clear how soon the company will be able to attempt these milestones.

Falcon 9 Certification

Shotwell said last week that she expects certification of the Falcon 9 v1.1 booster in the first half of the year. The U.S. Air Force, which oversees the certification process, has set the same deadline. Shotwell said the Air Force certification process is going well. NASA is running its own parallel process.

Certification is required for SpaceX to launch NASA’s Jason 3 ocean altimeter satellite later this year. The launch is now scheduled for July 22.

Shotwell said she does not expect the upgrade t0 the booster planned for this summer to involve a lengthy new certification process.

Falcon Heavy to Debut

Falcon Heavy. (Credit: SpaceX)

Falcon Heavy. (Credit: SpaceX)

Shotwell said the Falcon Heavy will be launched from the Kennedy Space Center’s Pad 39A late this year. The pad will be ready in September or October, with a launch to follow before the end of 2015.

SpaceX plans to conduct government and commercial launches with it in 2016. Shotwell said the hope is to have Falcon Heavy certified for defense and NASA payloads in 2018.

Falcon Heavy includes three Falcon 9 first stages with 27 Merlin 1-D engines clustered together with a single-engine second stage. It is designed to launch the heaviest military satellites.

Shotwell said the company delayed the Falcon Heavy inaugural flight in order to focus on obtaining certification for the Falcon 9 v1.1. That focus probably accounts for some of the delay, but not all of it. SpaceX originally promised a maiden flight from Vandenberg in early 2013; now the company is projecting a launch late in 2015 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

 CRS2 Contract to be Awarded

SpaceX Dragon freighter at ISS. (Credit: NASA)

SpaceX Dragon freighter at ISS. (Credit: NASA)

The SpaceX president didn’t address the CRS2 contract, which NASA is expected to award in June. Given that all six Dragon resupply missions to the International Space Station have been successful, the company would seem to be in the pole position for winning another agreement.

At least four other companies – Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK and Sierra Nevada Corporation – have submitted proposals for the CRS2 contract. Orbital ATK current holds the other active CRS contract.

Commercial Crew Milestones

SpaceX Dragon vehicle undergoes preparation for abort test. (Credit: NASA)

SpaceX Dragon vehicle undergoes preparation for abort test. (Credit: NASA)

SpaceX is scheduled to complete nine commercial crew milestones this year. Two of the milestones are launch abort tests left over from the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) contract. The others are for the follow-on Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) agreement, which was signed in September. CCtCap will culminated with a crewed flight to the International Space Station with an advanced Dragon spacecraft.

1 On-pad Dragon Abort Test (CCiCap) December 2013
2 In-flight Dragon Abort Test (CCiCap) April 2014 Pending
3 Initial Propulsion Module Testing Complete April 2015
4 Avionics Test Bed Activation May 2015 Pending
5 Delta Critical Design Review (dCDR) June 2015 Pending
6 Docking System Qualification Testing Complete August 2015 Pending
7 Propulsive Land Landing Test Complete September 2015 Pending
8 Launch Site Operational Readiness Review November 2015 Pending
9 Flight Test Without Crew Certification Review (FTCR)
December 2015 Pending

Two crewed Dragon abort tests are planned for later this year. The first test will involve a pad abort test that will take place at Cape Canaveral. The second will be an in-flight abort at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Shotwell said the pad abort test would be ready to go within a couple of weeks. The original plan was to conduct Falcon 9 launches on March 21 and April 10. Then the pad at Cape Canaveral would be freed up for the abort test. However, those plans have been scrambled by a month-long delay in the launch of the TurkmenAlem52E/MonacoSat 1 satellite to April 24.

Both abort tests are running significantly behind schedule. The original schedule called for the pad abort test to take place in December 2013 and the in-flight abort in April 2014.

Whether SpaceX will meet all its commercial crew milestones this year remains to be seen. There appears to have been some slippage in the company’s schedule already. The list of SpaceX milestones in its CCtCap agreement with NASA has a crewed Dragon demonstration flight to ISS occurring in October 2016. However, Shotwell said last week the flight will take place in early 2017,.

Long Range Programs

Elon Musk (center) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry break ground on a new launch complex. (Credit: Texas Governor's Office)

Elon Musk (center) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry break ground on a new launch complex. (Credit: Texas Governor’s Office)

Shotwell also gave updates on several long-term SpaceX ventures.

The company is building a private launch complex in Texas. Shotwell said once that facility is up and running, SpaceX will have the capability of launching 36 Falcon rockets annually.

The company’s ambitious effort to provide broadband Internet to the planet via more than 4,000 small satellites is still in the exploratory phase. Shotwell said there were few additional details to provide at present.

A recent $1 billion investment in SpaceX by Google and Fidelity Investments was not for the satellite Internet venture but for general business purposes, Shotwell said.

Despite the recent boon in the small satellite market, SpaceX has no plans to re-introduce the Falcon 1e launch vehicle that it abandoned several years ago. Shotwell said the Falcon 9 could launch small satellites as secondary payloads.

Work is continuing on SpaceX’s Mars transporter, which will use Raptor engines fueled by liquid oxygen and methane. Shotwell believes there is a commercial market for a Mars vehicle.

“There are a surprising number of people who want to leave Earth,” she said.