SpaceX preparing for Static Fire test on first Full Thrust Falcon 9 First Stage

by Chris Bergin

SpaceX is preparing to conduct the first full duration static fire test on its “full thrust” Falcon 9 first stage. The milestone – set to be conducted at its McGregor test facility in Texas within the next few days – will be a major step forward in the flow towards the company’s Return To Flight mission tasked with launching a group of Orbcomm-2 satellites, set to take place in late November/early December at the earliest.

SpaceX Static Fire:

The majority of Falcon 9 hardware is born on the factory floor at SpaceX’s Hawthorne center in California.

In fact, more than 70 percent of each Falcon launch vehicle is manufactured or assembled in-house at the production facility, allowing SpaceX to avoid the pitfalls associated with single-source parts dependency and gives the company competitive advantages in quality, cost and schedule control.

2015-10-24-230946Over recent years, SpaceX has been producing the Falcon 9 v1.1 for all of its mission objectives. With each rocket identical in nature, commonalities in the vehicle’s subassemblies facilitate rapid production.

Even the second-stage tanks of the Falcon 9 are “simply” a shorter version of the first-stage tanks and use most of the same tooling, material and manufacturing techniques.

SpaceX was planning to upgrade the rocket to the Full Thrust Falcon 9 even before the loss of the Falcon 9 v1.1 with the CRS-7 Dragon. The final remaining Falcon 9 v1.1 will loft the Jason-3 satellite out of the Vandenberg Air Force Base.

While schedule considerations are still taking place, the Jason-3 mission is currently expected to be the second mission since the CRS-7 failure, with a projected launch date of NET (No Earlier Than) December 15.

The Return To Flight mission has been designated to flying 11 Orbcomm-2 (OG-2) satellites on the first Full Thrust Falcon 9. It was previously thought the SES-9 satellite would ride first.

However, the SES-9 satellite launch is a more complex GTO mission that requires two burns from the second stage, while the OG2 mission is to LEO, requiring just the one push from the second stage. This mission profile will allow for a key reignition test of the second stage post-spacecraft separation, adding confidence to the post-failure modifications to the stage.

SES-9 is currently shown to be rescheduled to NET December 27, to be followed by Dragon’s return on the CRS-8 mission NET early in January. All launch date targets, including Orbcomm-2 – currently scheduled for November 24, but more likely to take place in December – are subject to change as the flows align and the launches are conducted.

2015-10-24-233435It is understood SpaceX currently has one week of schedule allowance – with the Second Stage on the critical path – to making a late November launch date. With natural slips in flow milestones, a December RTF launch will likely become the reality, pushing the subsequent launches to the right.

A key step towards what is now the Orbcomm-2 mission was the shipping of the Falcon 9 first stage to McGregor for testing.

All Falcon stages pass through the Texas site, allowing them to be fired up and tested for any issues prior to continuing their journey to the launch site.

It was also noted that the Falcon 9 first stage and interstage for Orbcomm-2 had already been shipped out of the factory as early as August (L2), en route to McGregor.

2015-10-24-222646That stage was erected on the “Falcon Heavy Test stand” – a dual-purpose stand that can be used for both Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9 testing.

Following integration work and what is understood to be some wet dress rehearsal loading, the stage came to life for a 15 second static fire test last month.

As is the goal of McGregor testing, any issues with the hardware can be spotted during test firings. One such issue was observed with an engine on the Falcon 9 during the firing, as it endured a long residual after burn.

The Stage – as was always the plan – was removed from the test stand and the engines removed to allow for inspections to take place, post test.

The second objective of McGregor testing for this stage is a full duration static fire test.

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With the stage back on the test stand, followed by the re-installation of the engines, the initial NET (No Earlier Than) date for the test was updated to Saturday. However, poor weather in the region – as observed over the weekend – can constraints for tanking, delaying the test.

SpaceX has previously provided local McGregor-area media with a notice of a static fire test, ensuring nearby residents are not surprised by the large rumble of nine Merlin 1D engines firing up.

A notice has now been published for this test, citing the test – clearly relating to the first stage – is expected to take place this week.

“SpaceX has announced that they will be running tests on their rocket development facility in McGregor,” noted local media KXXV.

“The company says people can expect significantly more noticeable notice than they typically hear when SpaceX runs tests. Tests are expected to start Monday, Oct. 26 at the earliest.”

Providing the test goes to plan, the stage will be removed from the stand, checked and cleaned, prior to being prepared for transport to the Cape.

2014-12-16 21_34_17-L2 Level_ SpaceX F9_FH_BFR_MCT RenderingsAlthough the primary mission will be the obvious focus of the launch, the ascent won’t be the last time we’ll see the first stage. This mission will once again involve an attempt to return the first stage on to a floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean.

With additional improvements added to the stage during the post-CRS-7 failure period, and providing the weather conditions downrange from the Cape are acceptable, hopes are high SpaceX will be successful in nailing a landing on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) “Of Course I Still Love You”.

Meanwhile, progress is being made on both the landing pads at Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg, with the prospect of a first stage returning for a land touchdown likely to be undertaken in just a few missions’ time, pending the success of the upcoming ASDS attempts.

(Images: via SpaceX and L2’s SpaceX Section, including Jo Hunter’s aerial overview of SpaceX McGregor and L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full hi-res gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*)

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