What’s next for SpaceX’s recovered Falcon 9 booster?

The returned Falcon 9 booster flown Dec. 21 is pictured inside the hangar at Kennedy Space Center’s launch pad 39A. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX ground crews at Kennedy Space Center’s Apollo-era launch complex 39A are putting the 156-foot-tall Falcon 9 first stage booster that flew to space and back Dec. 21 through a thorough inspection, setting the stage for a hold-down test firing at the launch pad.

Workers tilted the rocket on its side at Landing Zone 1, a former Atlas missile launch facility at Cape Canaveral, where the booster made its vertical rocket-assisted landing.

A multi-wheeled transporter towed behind a truck moved the 12-foot-diameter rocket about 10 miles up the road to the north to pad 39A on Dec. 24, where ground teams put the rocket inside a newly-built hangar installed over the former Apollo and space shuttle crawlerway leading up to the launch mount.

The Dec. 21 flight, which marked the first SpaceX launch since a Falcon 9 failure in June, took off from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad and delivered 11 commercial Orbcomm message relay satellites to orbit. The first stage switched off two-and-a-half minutes into the mission, then began a series of maneuvers to flip around and return to Florida’s Space Coast as the second stage continued into orbit with the Orbcomm spacecraft.

The launch was also the inaugural flight of an upgraded Falcon 9 modified to carry extra fuel and generate more thrust, changes conceived to improve the rocket’s lift capability.

The Falcon 9 booster, fitted with nine Merlin 1D engines, is seen inside pad 39A's hangar at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: SpaceX
The Falcon 9 booster, fitted with nine Merlin 1D engines, is seen inside pad 39A’s hangar at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: SpaceX

At pad 39A, SpaceX plans to use the booster as a pathfinder for the seaside launch facility. The commercial space transportation company leased the launch pad from NASA in 2014 and began outfitting it for the Falcon 9 and triple-core Falcon Heavy rockets, as well as future crewed missions to the International Space Station.

The checks will culminate with a firing of the Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad, while it is kept on the ground by hold-down restraints.

SpaceX has not set a timetable for the static fire test, but Elon Musk, the company’s billionaire founder and chief executive, said on Twitter that the Falcon 9 booster is in good condition: “No damage found, ready to fire again.”

The technical achievement of returning the Falcon 9’s cigar-shaped booster stage to Cape Canaveral less than 10 minutes after liftoff from a nearby launch pad with 11 satellites on-board was unparalleled in space history, but proving the economics of rocket reuse requires an inexpensive and swift turnaround to prepare the first stage for another flight.

It also needs the endorsement of satellite owners to put their payloads aboard a used rocket. Some satellite operators, such as SES, have said they intend to fly their satellites on reused Falcon 9s, but none have committed.

Speaking to reporters after the Dec. 21 launch and landing at Cape Canaveral, Musk said he hopes to refly a Falcon 9 first stage some time in 2016.

“We have quite a big flight manifest, and we should be doing well over a dozen flights next year, so I think probably some time next year we would aim to refly one of the rocket boosters,” Musk said Dec. 21.

The first stage currently at launch pad 39A will stay on the ground, he said.

The static fire test, in which the first stage’s nine Merlin 1D engines ignite and power up to full throttle, will “confirm that all systems are good, and that we’re able to do a full-thrust hold-down firing of the rocket,” Musk said.

“Then I think we’ll probably keep this one on the ground just because it’s kind of unique,” Musk said. “It’s the first one that we brought back.”

SpaceX has not disclosed where the Falcon 9 first stage could wind up, or whether it will be displayed publicly.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.