SpaceX static fires Zuma Falcon 9; engine test anomaly no issue for manifest

no alt

SpaceX has conducted the important static fire of the Falcon 9 rocket that will be tasked with lofting the secretive Zuma payload to Low Earth Orbit next Wednesday.  The static fire occurred at the opening of the window at the Kennedy Space Center at 18:00 EST (23:00 UTC).  Meanwhile, a Merlin 1D test stand failure at McGregor, Texas, poses no issue to SpaceX’s ongoing acceptance testing of the Block 5 Merlin 1D engine or to the company’s launch manifest.

Static Fire:

As is always the case in the days leading to a scheduled launch, SpaceX static fires their Falcon 9 rocket, with this one working towards the launch of the Zuma payload next Wednesday.

In preparation for the static fire, the Falcon 9 first and second stages were mated together in the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) just outside the pad perimeter gate of LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center before the entire rocket was then mated to the Transporter/Erector/Launcher (TEL) and reaction frame.

The Falcon 9 in question is first stage booster B1043, a brand new Falcon 9 first stage that was originally intended for use on NASA’s upcoming contracted CRS-13/Dragon mission to the ISS – set to launch NET (No Earlier Than) 4 December 2017 from the newly rebuilt SLC-40 on the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

As first reported by NASASpaceflight.com, however, core B1043 was reassigned to Zuma when the secretive mission took immediate priority on SpaceX’s November manifest with an absolute, contract-specified need to launch No Later Than 30 November 2017.

With NASA understood to be switching CRS-13 and CRS-14 to flight-proven boosters that have flown only one prior LEO (Low Earth Orbit) mission, this cleared up any conflict with B1043 being transferred to Zuma.

(NOTE: NASA has not publically announced the approval of flight proven Falcon 9 boosters for CRS missions, but sources insist a positive decision has been made.)

For Saturday’s static fire, Falcon 9 was transported to the launch pad and erected over the flame trench of Pad 39A, where it was then connected to all electrical, data, and propellant loading equipment.

The launch team undertook an actual countdown – complete with full propellant loading of RP-1 kerosene and LOX (liquid oxygen) into both the first and second stages of the Falcon 9 and lighting of all nine Merlin 1D engines for approximately 3.5 seconds while keeping the hold down clamps firmly attached to the rocket.

Once the static fire was complete, the engines were shut down and the vehicle placed into a safe configuration before detanking, afterwhich Falcon 9 and the TEL will be lowered to horizontal and taken back into the HIF where the rocket will be mated with its secret payload.

At the same time, engineers will review all data from the static fire – which will be used at the L-2 Launch Readiness Review (LRR) to clear Falcon 9 for flight.

Liftoff of Falcon 9 with Zuma is currently set for Wednesday, 15 November 2017 in a two hour launch window from 20:00-22:00 EST – 01:00-03:00 UTC on 16 November.

Engine test stand failure at McGregor:

The static fire comes one week after a failure of a Merlin 1D test stand at SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas, facility.

Importantly, the failure is not significant and was not a failure of an engine but rather of the associated test stand Ground Support Equipment (GSE).

According to sources, the failure occurred ahead of an engine firing, which involved a Merlin 1D Block 5 qualification unit.

Moreover, the failure occurred prior to the planned ignition of the Merlin 1D Block 5.

Based on available information, it appears that the test stand failure was caused by a GSE leak of liquid oxygen and an as-yet-unknown ignition source.

As the investigation continues, SpaceX is in the process of repairing the test stand – a repair timeline that is expected to result in the stand being back online in a couple weeks.

Moreover, a co-located second Merlin 1D test stand is understood to have only received minor damage at best, with its repairs only taking a few days. (Note: L2 McGregor Photos to left shows the condition of the test stands post-failure. Full hi res photo sets – from ground and air level available in L2 here).

The failure did not stop other testing at the Texas location as a Falcon 9 second stage and first stage booster (core B1044 – which is awaiting a confirmed allocation to a mission) both underwent fueling and hot fire testing in the days that followed.

Also quite important is the fact that this was a ground and test stand issue and not an engine failure similar to other failures on the test stand – which means there is no effect on the SpaceX manifest that has established a steady cadence and rhythm to its launches this year.

As soon as the failure occurred, SpaceX began providing its customers with timely insight on the investigation and recovery, with NASA sources indicating that the agency does not foresee any issues for upcoming NASA missions.

Moreover, according to NASA sources, the condition that presented itself on the test stand would not be a condition that would occur at the launch pad during fueling and launch operations – something which greatly aids the continuation and uninterrupted flow of missions from LC-39A, SLC-40, and SLC-4E that will conclude this year’s extremely busy manifest.

As of writing, SpaceX’s end of year manifest still has three Falcon 9 missions and one Falcon Heavy mission, with a manifest as follows:

Date Launch time Rocket Mission Pad / Location
Nov. 15 20:00 EST Falcon 9 Zuma LC-39A / KSC
Dec. 4 14:52 EST Falcon 9 CRS-13/Dragon SLC-40 / CCAFS
Dec. 22 17:26 PST Falcon 9 Iridium NEXT-4 SLC-4E / Vandenberg
~NET Dec. 29 TBA Falcon Heavy FH demo/debut LC-39A / KSC


For these missions, Zuma will use a brand new Falcon 9 core, B1043 – which will perform a RTLS (Return To Launch Site) landing on LZ-1 after launch.

CRS-13 is expected to use CRS-11’s booster, core B1035.2 – which will also RTLS after launch.

Iridium NEXT-4 will make use of Iridium NEXT-2’s booster, core B1036.2.  This core will attempt an ASDS, Just Read The Instructions, drone ship landing after launch.

Then, if the Falcon Heavy schedule holds, the most powerful rocket in the world will debut on approx. NET 29 December – with its two flight proven side-mounted boosters (B1023.2 [Thaicom-8 in May 2016] and B1025.2 [CRS-9 in July 2016]) performing simultaneous RTLS landings side-by-side at LZ-1 while its center, brand new core – B1033 – performs an ASDS drone ship landing on Of Course I Still Love You in the Atlantic moments later.

(Images: SpaceX, Chris Gebhardt for NASASpaceflight.com, and L2 McGregor via Gary Blair. To Join L2, Click here).

Share This Article