The recently recovered Falcon 9 first stage (F9-0024-S1) has arrived inside SpaceX’s Pad 39A Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) following its recovery after the JCSAT-14 launch. The stage is being housed alongside the other two recovered cores, providing a glimpse into the triple-core processing that will be conducted ahead of the maiden launch of the Falcon Heavy.
Falcon 9 Cores Reunited:
SpaceX’s ongoing reusability goals have now resulted in three recovered First Stages.
Notably, all three stages have successfully returned home from three unique launch and landing profiles, aiding SpaceX’s hands-on evaluations into their performances.
The first recovered stage was responsible for the Falcon 9’s Return To Flight success, aiding the initial ride uphill for the OG-2 satellites that were launched at the end of last year.
That stage returned for the historic maiden touchdown at SpaceX’s newly-completed landing facility designated Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1).
LZ-1 is a former Atlas launch pad that was originally built as Launch Complex 13 (LC-13) in the 1950s for early testing of the first Atlas missiles, along with the adjacent Launch Complexes 11, 12 and 14 which formed the southern half of Cape Canaveral’s “Missile Row”.
SpaceX agreed to lease the facility from the US Air Force earlier this year, with a view to using it as a landing site for the Falcon 9’s first stage.
Another landing is planned there in the summer, while two more landings pads will be built ahead of Falcon Heavy launches.
The company is also in the final stages of completing a similar landing facility at Vandenberg, using former Space Launch Complex 4W.
Once the OG-2 first stage had been safed at the landing site it was transported over to SpaceX’s Pad 39A HIF.
Inside the new building – that will eventually be used to host Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets preparing to be launched from the former Shuttle pad – the OG-2 booster underwent an engineering checkout.
This included a quick trip out to SpaceX’s regular launch pad at SLC-40, where the booster enjoyed a short static fire test to gain additional data on the engines after their launch.
Returned back to the 39A HIF, this stage is not expected to fly again and will instead go on display, potentially at SpaceX’s Hawthorne HQ.
A second recovery marked the first time a stage had returned to the more challenging Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) barge destination, a drone ship named “Of Course I Still Love You”, located in the Atlantic Ocean.
The launch requirements of the CRS-8 Dragon mission could have allowed for the first stage to make a second return to LZ-1. However, SpaceX decided to use the increased margins to finally succeed at landing on the ASDS.
This too was a major milestone, not least due to the ocean landing requirement being the only option for a large number of future recoveries.
The return of the CRS-8 stage on the deck of the ASDS into Port Canaveral also provided pathfinder operations for future stages sailing back to the coast.
With the stage joining the OG-2 core inside the HIF, the next stage to head to Port Canaveral came unexpectedly sooner than had been envisioned.
The launch of the JCSAT-14 satellite was a high-performance Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) mission, which placed an even higher challenge to the returning first stage.
A three engine landing burn was successfully employed for the first time, with the stage nailing the landing in the middle of the ASDS’ deck.
After arriving into Port Canaveral, engineers followed a similar process to that used during the CRS-8 S1 flow, safing the vehicle and removing the landing legs.
The processing was completed slightly faster than with the CRS-8 stage – as would be expected following the lessons of the pathfinder flow – with the stage rotated and placed on the transporter vehicle for the road trip back through Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and into the Pad 39A HIF over the weekend.
The completion of the trip resulted in the first time three core stages were located together inside the new SpaceX building at the former Space Shuttle pad complex.
SpaceX photos of the three cores – provided to The Verge – showed numerous engines have been removed from the OG-2 and CRS-8 cores, Merlin 1Ds that have been sent back to their birthplace at the Hawthorne facility in California for a full checkout.
However, the sight of three cores alongside each other provided a viewpoint that will be seen again with three brand new cores that will be used for the debut of the Falcon Heavy at the end of the year.
Ahead of the Falcon Heavy’s maiden flight, the recovered cores will play a major role in the next step in SpaceX’s reusability roadmap, from a data standpoint, through to an actual return to flight.
First, the CRS-8 first stage will undergo numerous Static Fire tests, either at Pad 39A, or at the SpaceX test site in McGregor, Texas.
Should all go to plan with the static fire tests, the stage will be part of what will be a historic launch of an unspecified payload in the summer.
The JCSAT-14 stage isn’t expected to fly again due to the initial evaluations into damage received via its high-velocity return. However, it will still provide useful test data.
“Most recent rocket took max damage, due to very high entry velocity,” noted Elon Musk. “Will be our life leader for ground tests to confirm others are good.”
Meanwhile, yet another first stage may join the recovered cores, via the upcoming Thaicom-8 mission that is set to launch from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral.
This mission is currently targeting a launch on May 26, with a launch window of 17:40 through to 19:19 Eastern. The first stage is already inside the SLC-40 HIF, with the Static Fire test currently scheduled for May 22.
This stage will also be targetted a landing on the ASDS.
(Images: SpaceX, Jacques van Oene/Spacepatches.nl, NSF member Marek Cyzio and L2 SpaceX – including F9 S1 39A testing render from L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*)
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