New SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket tests its Cape Canaveral pad
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: January 12, 2009
Engineers removed the first Falcon 9 rocket from its launch pad Monday, concluding the first round of pathfinder tests for the launcher and ground systems at the oceanfront complex.
The Falcon 9 was developed by Space Exploration Technologies Corp., a budding aerospace company founded in 2002 by technology mogul Elon Musk.
"This entire process has helped us validate key interfaces and operations prior to executing our launch campaign with the vehicle in its final flight configuration," Musk said.
More trials are scheduled over the next few days.
"We will be going vertical again later in the week to demonstrate operational responsiveness and to collect additional data from vehicle instrumentation," said Brian Mosdell, SpaceX's launch site director at Complex 40.
"(This is) a huge milestone for the company," said Max Vozoff, mission manager at SpaceX. "It really is a wakeup call to everybody concerned, whether it's in Washington or in Florida or our competitors: that this is real and it's imminent."
But engineers have a long road ahead before clearing the rocket is ready to head skyward this summer.
"It has some more paces to go through. This rocket will come down, it will be disassembled, and then pieces will go back to either test sites or Hawthorne, get into final configuration for flight, and then be returned for the first flight sequence," said Tim Buzza, vice president of launch operations.
SpaceX decided to go ahead with the hardware deliveries and fit checks to learn about the system in an environment free of launch pressures, Buzza said.
"Any engineered system has requirements that can only be recognized through actual assembly of real hardware," Mosdell said.
The company has also long advertised the first Falcon 9 hardware deliveries would occur by the end of 2008.
"All of the (work) was very close to how we will do it for final integration, even to the point where we sit it into the transporter-erector, engage it into the launch mounts and roll out," Buzza said. "The value was high, and when we come back and do it again it will go even smoother."
The company will build a large integration hangar on the south side of the pad. The building will stretch 225 long and 75 feet wide and stand about 50 feet tall.
The Falcon 9 pathfinder was put together outdoors using temporary cranes. Permanent cranes inside the hangar will be used to integrate future rockets.
"It was actually integrated on the hangar slab where we will do it for real," Buzza said. "We just don't have the roof over it yet."
That foundation includes rail tracks left over from the Titan program, which used Complex 40 for four decades ending in 2005.
SpaceX is reusing the tracks for the Falcon 9 erector system.
Metal for the hangar structure is already at the Cape, and fabrication is expected to begin next week, according to Mosdell.
"It's made to sit outdoors," said Chris Thompson, vice president of structures. "We're going to sit out in the elements, so the fairing is completely sealed and the tanks are completely sealed."
Workers must also finish running propellant lines between the steel launch mount and propellant tanks. Piping is nearly complete for the kerosene fuel system, but technicians still need to install plumbing for liquid oxygen.
That important milestone is required before the launch team can load propellant into the rocket.
"The very next step we would have taken after the vehicle goes erect is the fueling operation," Mosdell said. "So the completion of those fueling systems will be getting priority over the next couple of months."
SpaceX will also deliver more rocket parts this spring for use on the booster's maiden launch.
The first stage and parts of the engine assembly already at the Cape will be used on the first launch. The interstage, second stage and payload fairing components will be used for qualification testing, Thompson said.
"Every piece of hardware on that vehicle is essentially a flight or qualification article that will be used to certify the vehicle for flight," Thompson said.
The current rocket's equipment is mostly destined for flight, "by weight or complexity," Buzza said.
The past month's round of assembly and tests stopped short of a full wet dress rehearsal. That test is scheduled for late March, once more flight hardware arrives and engineers wrap up pad construction.
The wet dress rehearsal will simulate a real launch countdown and serve as an exercise for the rocket, ground systems, and a team of controllers stationed just outside the gates of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
About 17 launch controllers and 20 support officials will occupy the facility during a countdown, Buzza said.
Also on tap is at least one brief test firing of all nine first stage engines. Similar firings were conducted last year at the company's Texas test site, but officials want to schedule another test at the launch site before the first mission.
SpaceX is also wrapping up final qualification testing on most of the Falcon 9's systems. Engineers recently completed qualification tests on the Merlin engine slated for use on the rocket's first and second stages.
"You will see a parallel effort between finishing qualification and processing towards flight," Buzza said.
This weekend's milestone came less than four weeks after rocket components began arriving at Cape Canaveral.
The first stage flight tank was delivered Dec. 16 after an overland journey from the company's headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif.
The rocket's nine Merlin first stage engines arrived Dec. 22 after a cross-country trip from SpaceX's test site in McGregor, Texas.
The Falcon 9's second stage was trucked into Cape Canaveral Dec. 23, and workers spent the holidays putting the rocket together.
SpaceX completed integration Dec. 30. The focus then turned to connecting pieces of the 49-ton launch mount and the erector system.
Technicians attached the erector to the launch mount Wednesday and completed the first lift test the same day.
The Falcon 9 was mated to the erector Friday, a day before it was lifted vertical.
It takes about 30 minutes to erect and lower the booster with giant hydraulic pistons. The entire process took about three hours from rollout to erection Saturday, officials said.
"I am highly confident that we will achieve our goal of being able to go from the hangar to liftoff in under 60 minutes, which would be a big leap forward in capability compared with the days to weeks required of other launch vehicles," Musk said.
The process went more smoothly than a similar procedure used by the company's smaller Falcon 1 rocket.
"This unit is much larger and much harder to manage in terms of its weight and size, and it actually rolled out and pinned in with greater ease than the Falcon 1 unit," Buzza said.
Lessons learned from Falcon 1 were applied to the Falcon 9's design and operations architecture.
"I certainly don't hope to give the impression we're overconfident, and that we've solved everything on Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 will be a breeze," Buzza said.
The Falcon 1 program is a stepping stone to the much larger Falcon 9, and the smaller booster's first success in September buoyed the company and its team of engineers.
"It's nine times more propellant roughly, but it's just bigger tanks, bigger pumps and bigger pipes, not so much that the process is different," Buzza said.
Buzza admitted the Falcon 9 rocket is on a new scale for SpaceX. The company will take its time to ensure the new launcher is ready to go when launch day arrives, Buzza said.
The rocket is scheduled for launch this summer on a demonstration mission for SpaceX, Buzza said.
Officials previously said they have contracted with a customer, possibly the U.S. government, for the Falcon 9's maiden voyage. But Buzza remained tight-lipped about the identity of a potential payload Monday.
Subsequent missions are scheduled to launch payloads for commercial and government customers, including a series of 12 resupply missions to the international space station.
Those flights will use the company's Dragon capsule to transport cargo to the complex beginning in 2010. Three Dragon demo missions are also on the books, beginning with the second Falcon 9 launch later this year.
Falcon 9 launches start at less than $37 million, less than half the price quoted by most medium- and heavy-lift commercial launch providers.
SpaceX plans incremental upgrades to increase the rocket's capacity to compete with other large boosters, such as the Atlas 5, Delta 4 and Proton families.
Atlas and Delta rockets are fielded by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture formed between Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. But the venerable launchers are subsidized by Pentagon funding to make sure crucial military satellites have a ride to space.
Government requirements foster high fixed costs that drive many commercial customers to Russian and European launch options. The ULA manifest is also mostly filled with launches for the U.S. military and NASA, leaving few openings for other customers.
"We have almost none of the international commercial launch market and that's because of the way these vehicles have been developed, the way that they're funded and the way the programs are sustained," Vozoff said.
SpaceX is following a very different model. Officials expect the rocket's low cost will allow satellite operators to fly more missions.
"It clearly enables missions that would not otherwise be able to fly," Vozoff said. "It enables programs to fly more missions for the same amount of money."
John Insprucker, the Falcon 9 product manager, formerly worked in the Air Force overseeing Titan, Delta and Atlas rocket programs. The comparison is striking, he said.
"Changing a design can be measured, in the extreme, as taking hours at SpaceX and potentially years in the Air Force," Insprucker said. "SpaceX can control the pace and priorities of Falcon 9 development and can be more firmly in control of its destiny."