Reducing risk via ground testing is a recipe for SpaceX success

by Chris Bergin

SpaceX have noted they are happy with the technical progress being made on their new Falcon 9 v.1.1 (F 9-R) launch vehicle, as they prepare their next generation rocket for its role in upcoming launches and the future goal of creating a fully reusable launch system. UPDATE: SpaceX provided an update on Thursday evening, noting they have successfully completed the first stage’s development testing.

Next Generation Falcon 9:

Following its successful role, primarily in lofting SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station on resupply missions, the Falcon 9 will next launch with additional capability.

That next launch, set to loft Canada’s CASSIOPE spacecraft from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, will debut the Falcon 9 v.1.1, in turn flight-qualifying the rocket’s improvements, not least the nine upgraded Merlin 1D engines on the core stage and the Merlin VacD on the Upper Stage.

Testing of the Merlin 1D has been ongoing since 2011, resulting in the completion of a 28-test qualification program earlier this year.

The focus has since switched to testing all nine Merlin 1Ds – together in their new octagonal placement on the core stage – on the test stand at SpaceX’s Rocket Development and Test Facility in McGregor, Texas.

Numerous firings have taken place at the test facility, resulting in varied levels of success. While some of the firings were cut short by aborts, the ability to gather data and iron out any issues whilst still on the ground is one of the basic fundamentals of rocket science, when the goal is to increase safety and reliability ahead of launching for real.

Falcon 9 v1.1 stage firing“There have been varied tests for Falcon 9-R, including several in the past few weeks. As we prepare to fly this next generation Falcon 9 rocket, SpaceX will test everything possible on the ground,” noted SpaceX spokesperson Christina Ra to

“SpaceX’s testing program is very rigorous to wring out problems before we fly operational missions. We do more testing than other launch service providers, and we do significant system testing. We are happy with our technical progress and will continue to test to reduce risk, as getting our customers’ payloads to orbit safely is our top priority.”

Falcon v1.1 first stage test firingUPDATE: Late on Thursday, SpaceX confirmed the latest firing of the stage on the test stand completed first stage development testing, allowing for the progression towards acceptance testing and flight preparations.

“SpaceX completed first-stage development testing on June 19 with a firing that achieved all verifications needed following earlier stage testing,” Ms. Ra noted in an update to

“With this test, we have achieved the equivalent of nearly two full mission duty cycles on the integrated stage.  We are now moving into the stage acceptance tests and final preparations for flight.”

Earlier, SpaceX noted they are ticking several boxes on their upgraded rocket’s report card, at both ends of the vehicle.

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“We have already successfully demonstrated the 50 percent increase in thrust with the upgraded (and qualified) Merlin 1D engine, and we have qualified all primary structure,” Ms. Ra noted, adding an issue with the test setup for their new fairing – as opposed to an issue with the fairing design – has also been resolved.

Falcon 9 Fairing“I can confirm that we are nearing the end of fairing testing. SpaceX did determine an issue with our load test setup.”

“We’ve now modified the test setup, because we had an experience with the fairing in an area that was loaded well beyond 100 percent of ultimate possible load – in other words, the issue experienced was not a failure of the fairing design, it was a test issue that has now been resolved.”

SpaceX note they currently remain on schedule – depending on the outcome of the upcoming testing – to begin their next salvo of launches, starting with the CASSIOPE mission, within the current August/September timeframe.

“SpaceX will determine when we have gained enough confidence in understanding the interaction of all components through system testing. Depending on the outcome of the remaining testing, launch windows in this timeframe are still achievable,” added Ms. Ra.

“As always, the safety of our customers’ payloads is our top priority, so we will continue to test until we’re satisfied that we have done all we can to ensure a successful mission outcome.”

SpaceX Falcon HeavyOnce SpaceX are satisfied with their test results for the upgraded launch vehicle, rocket fans can look forward to an exciting run of missions, ranging from satellite launches out of their Vandenberg and Cape Canaveral launch sites, through to the debut of the Falcon Heavy, which is scheduled to conduct its demo flight from California next year.

The Falcon Heavy will be a game changer for America’s commercial heavy lift capability. With its kerosene-driven first stage made up of three nine-engine cores, a total of 27 Merlin 1D engines will generate the 3.97 million pounds of thrust at liftoff for the new vehicle.

The resulting performance will allow for a Mass to Orbit (200 km, 28.5 deg) of 53 metric tons (117,000 lbs), with its thrust lifting the 1,463 metric tons of hardware and fuel off the company’s Vandenberg pad.

Grasshopper during testingAhead of the FH’s debut, SpaceX are already deep into testing of their Grasshopper system, a key test element that will feed into their Falcon 9 v.1.1, creating the F 9-R (Reusable). Essentially the v.1.1 and F 9-R are the same vehicle, although the upgraded F9 will not fly with the key reusable hardware – such as landing legs – until a later date.

Grasshopper is currently testing hardware elements, propulsive landing and the landing legs structure, at the McGregor facility, with numerous incremental successes already achieved.

The latest “hop” of the Grasshopper took place last week, achieving a huge 325 meter leap into the air, before successfully landing after 68 seconds in the air.

(Images: via SpaceX)

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