We are now only a few months away from having the inaugural Falcon 9 launch vehicle on its launch pad at Cape Canaveral and ready to fly! 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. Based on prior experience, launch could be anywhere from one to three months after Falcon 9 is integrated at the Cape in November.
This initial test flight will carry our Dragon spacecraft qualification unit (see photos below), providing us with valuable aerodynamic and performance data for the Falcon 9 configuration that will fly on the following COTS and CRS missions for NASA. The second Falcon 9 flight will be the first flight of Dragon under the NASA COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) program, where we will demonstrate Dragon’s orbital maneuvering, communication and reentry capabilities.
Though it will initially be used to transport cargo, the Dragon spacecraft was designed from the beginning to transport crew. Almost all the necessary launch vehicle and spacecraft systems employed in the cargo version of Dragon will also be employed in the crew version of Dragon. As such, Dragon’s first cargo missions will provide valuable flight data that will be used in preparation for future crewed flight. This allows for a very aggressive development timelineâ€”approximately three years from the time funding is provided to go from cargo to crew.
The three year timeframe is driven by development of the launch escape system. This includes 18 months to complete development and qualification of the escape engine, in parallel with structures design, guidance, navigation & control, and supporting subsystems.
Another 12 months will be required to perform various pad and flight abort tests, which are slated to take place at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Wallops Flight Facility (Virginia). Under this timeline, the first crew launch would take place 30 months from the receipt of funding, leaving six months of schedule margin to allow for the unexpected.
With the help of NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office, the DragonEye Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) sensor has already undergone flight system trials in preparation for guiding the Dragon spacecraft as it approaches the International Space Station (ISS).
DragonEye launched aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour on July 15th, 2009 and tested successfully in proximity of the ISS (photos below). DragonEye provides three-dimensional images based on the amount of time it takes for a single laser pulse from the sensor to the reach a target and bounce back, providing range and bearing information from the Dragon spacecraft to the ISS.
Dragon Parachute Load Testing
We have also recently completed the parachute load test which was the last part of the Dragon primary structure qualification. Dragon withstood both nominal and off-nominal vertical parachute loads up to 48,000 lbf applied to the main and drogue fittings. The spacecraft is being shipped back to California from our Texas test site where it will continue preparations for its first flight.
First Stage Engines
With twenty-two Falcon 9 flights currently listed on our launch manifest, we’re continuing to ramp up all manufacturing lines. The pace of engine production continues to grow, with recent efforts focused on the nine Merlin engines, and one Merlin Vacuum engine for the upcoming inaugural Falcon 9 flight, as well as an identical set of Merlins for the second Falcon 9 flight. Together, the nine Merlin engines produce over 1 million pounds of thrust, and consume over half a million pounds of fuel and oxidizer in just under three minutes as they push the Falcon 9 out of Earth’s atmosphere and into orbit.
Second Stage Engines
At our test facility in McGregor, Texas, testing continues on the Merlin Vacuum engine which will power the Falcon 9 second stage to orbit. Qualification testing was completed last week, and will be followed closely by acceptance testing of the first Merlin Vacuum flight engine for the inaugural launch.
Click here to view the video tour of our Texas Test site with VP of Propulsion, Tom Mueller. Also, check out the September 2009 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine that profiles Tom and our propulsion systems.
The nine flight-ready Merlin first stage engines were integrated with the truss structure that evenly distributes their thrust upwards into the first stage tank. Above the truss, the carbon composite skirt (primer green in the photos below) houses the plumbing system that distributes the liquid oxygen (LOX) and RP-1 fuel to the engines.
The entire system was assembled and checked out in our Hawthorne facility, and then shipped to Texas for integration with the first stage propellant tanks, which recently completed proof and leak testing there. The F9 second stage has been shipped to Texas and is being prepped for structural testing which will begin this week, followed closely by stage separation testing.
Elsewhere in our Hawthorne plant, the launch vehicle for the second Falcon 9 flight is well underway. On the Friction Stir Welding (FSW) machine (above), the first stage tank passed the mid-point with the completion of the fuel tank welding. Additional barrel sections and one more dome will complete the LOX tank. The primary tank structure for the second flight’s second stage has already been fabricated and is being processed next to the second stage for the first flight.
Note that the first and second stages use a common architecture such as the same 3.7 meter (12 foot) diameter aluminum-lithium barrels and domes, and we manufacture them utilizing the same systems and tooling. This approach greatly reduces overhead, inventory and production costs, and simultaneously contributes to increased reliability. These are essential aspects of how SpaceX improves reliability and lowers the cost of access to space.
The vital electronics and software systems that will operate the Falcon 9 first flight have been integrated and completed final testing, as have our Dragon communications units destined for installation aboard the ISS. SpaceX’s COTS UHF Communications Unit is scheduled to fly aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis on STS-129 this coming November. Read the full press release here.
The Cape Canaveral launch site build-up and activation processes continues at Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40), our launch pad located a few miles south of the Space Shuttle launch sites on the Florida “space coast”. We have completed the new LOX ground handling and storage systems that will supply our Falcon 9 vehicles.
And we are finishing up numerous other systems that support safe and efficient launch operations. Other vital systems now in process include support for the storage and handling of RP-1 fuel, as well as nitrogen, helium, and the water deluge systems that help protect the pad and vehicle from the significant levels of thermal and acoustic energy created during launch.