SpaceX test fires returned Falcon 9 booster at McGregor

by Chris Bergin

A returned Falcon 9 first stage has been test fired at SpaceX’s McGregor test center, in what is the start of a series of firings. As of late August, several firings have taken place. F9-S1-0024 returned home after helping push JCSAT-14 uphill earlier this year, prior to landing on the ASDS located in the Atlantic Ocean. Although this stage isn’t expected to fly again, it is involved in critical ground testing, which will pave the way for the first relaunch of a Falcon 9 booster.


It’s the second time this stage has visited SpaceX’s growing test center in Texas.

2016-03-20-193921Departing from its birthplace at SpaceX’s Hawthorne base in California, it was spotted during transit near Abilene in Texas by a L2 member.

The stage was seen parked with its security escort on March 8, ahead of completing the remaining 175-mile journey to the test site.

Although the company doesn’t publish information as to when hardware is being trucked around the country, earlier stages have been spotted – usually by one of SpaceX’s legion of fans – during their transit from California to Texas and Texas to Florida on numerous occasions.

2016-03-20-220136The JCSAT-14 stage was then photographed on the test stand at McGregor (via L2 McGregor).

It underwent numerous tests, highlighted by the full-duration static fire of its nine Merlin 1D engines.

The stage was then removed from the stand and prepared for a road trip to Cape Canaveral, ready the business end of its flow towards the launch of the huge JCSAT-14 satellite.

The stage came to life for a second time during a Static Fire test on the SLC-40 pad for a dress rehearsal of its launch countdown, while the ASDS drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” was positioned down range along the launch track in the Atlantic Ocean, ready to “catch” the stage after launch.

The launch was successful, with the primary mission of sending JCSAT-14 into it required geosynchronous transfer orbit achieved without issue.

However, it was the return of the first stage that once again captured the imagination, this time pushing what is still very much a test program via a three engine landing burn, designed to help the stage cope with the return during the higher velocity and higher altitude than other missions – such as CRS missions – thus performing what is termed as a “hot entry” return to the ASDS.

2016-05-06-062948During an April news conference, SpaceX’s Elon Musk described the JCSAT-14 landing as “tough” considering the stage will be “coming in hot.”

However, it proved to be successful, as patchy webcam coverage from the drone ship saw the stage start to light up the deck, before suddenly showing the stage sat in the middle of the “X” – marking another major milestone for SpaceX.

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.

2016-05-15-224431The processing was completed slightly faster than with the first booster to be brought back to Port Canaveral – the CRS-8 stage – as would be expected following the lessons of the pathfinder flow.

The stage was then rotated and placed on the transporter vehicle for the road trip back through Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and into the Pad 39A HIF.

The completion of the trip resulted in the first time three core stages had been located together inside the new SpaceX building at the former Space Shuttle pad complex, joining the OG-2 and CRS-8 cores.

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.”

2016-07-29-013913That testing on the JCSAT-14 booster began on Thursday (photo left of the test), with the stage placed on the test stand at McGregor – ironically after the stand was vacated by the JCSAT-16 first stage – which recently completed testing and has since been shipped to Florida for its launch next month.

The returned stage is also sported a new cap, which may be providing some simulated weight to aid the required data gathering during the test firing.

The booster conducted a long firing of 2 minutes 30 seconds (the duration of first stage flight), that began around 7pm local time on Thursday (per L2 McGregor), which will provide vital data on the returned stage as SpaceX continue preparations for validating one of its recovered booster for a re-launch later this year.

2016-07-29-130259It was a busy day at McGregor on Thursday, with local observers noting several other tests taking place, understood to include Merlin 1D test firings, prior to F9-0024-S1 coming to life.

Notably, the test was the start of a test program for the booster, with three test firings taking place over a three day period. The stage was then removed allowing for the arrival of the Amos-6 first stage to be tested on the stand for its September mission.

F9-0024-S1 then returned the stand for additional firings.

The flow of returned boosters continued with the most recent launch, as the CRS-9 Dragon was successfully launched towards the International Space Station, while the first stage conducted the second landing at SpaceX’s LZ-1 landing pad.

That booster has since been transported to the 39A HIF, this time atop of the Orbiter Transporter System that has been repurposed from transporting Shuttle orbiters into transporting Falcon 9 first stages.

Initial evaluations show the CRS-9 first stage to be in great shape, raising hopes it will be involved with a re-flight.

(Images: SpaceX, NSF L2 members Jacques van Oene/ (Port Canaveral), TheNutti (stage in transport) and John Cooke (McGregor Testing F9-S1-0024). ScaryDare (McGregor Testing General)

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