Between 2012 and 2014 SpaceX made several low-altitude flights with two specially-converted dedicated test vehicles: Grasshopper and Falcon 9R Dev1. Grasshopper demonstrated the ability to launch a rocket to altitude and recover it vertically, while Dev1 was intended to reach higher altitudes and demonstrate technology that could be applicable to operational launches – such as deployable landing legs and grid fins. These tests ended when the Dev1 vehicle self-destructed after going off-course, by which point recovery tests on operational launches were well underway. Using excess performance offered by the Falcon 9 v1.1 over its predecessor, these tests demonstrated a successful powered descent into the sea.
In January 2015, SpaceX deployed a large barge – which it termed the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) – downrange. Named Just Read the Instructions, the ASDS was to serve as a landing platform for Falcon’s first stage following the launch of Dragon’s CRS-5 mission. The first stage reached the drone ship successfully but ran out of hydraulic fluid shortly before touchdown. It was destroyed in the resulting hard landing. Another landing attempt during the CRS-6 mission three months later also failed: the stage toppled over on landing due to the motion imparted by a stuck thruster.
Falcon 9’s first outright launch failure came in June 2015, during its attempt to launch Dragon on the CRS-7 mission. A strut in the second stage oxidizer tank failed, causing a composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) to break loose. The COPV, which contains liquid helium that is used to pressurize Falcon’s tanks, vented into the oxidizer tank and the resulting build-up in pressure caused the tank to rupture. The June 2015 launch remains the only in-flight loss of a Falcon 9, and the only loss of a Dragon spacecraft, to date.
When it returned to flight in December 2015, SpaceX debuted the Falcon 9 v1.2, or Falcon 9 Full Thrust. With uprated engines, a further stretched second stage and the introduction of supercold liquid oxygen – allowing it to be stored at a greater density within the rocket’s tanks – this version of the rocket represented a further increase in performance and payload capacity. This also expanded the range of missions that SpaceX could use to experiment with recovery: geostationary launches, which previously had to be flown expendably, could now attempt recovery at sea via the ASDS. With low orbit missions, SpaceX was able to add in a boostback burn – allowing the first stage to return to the launch site for a landing on dry land.
The return-to-flight mission, which carried eleven satellites for Orbcomm, lifted off from Cape Canaveral on 22 December 2015. Falcon 9’s twentieth flight, and SpaceX’s twenty-fifth orbital launch overall, the mission was the first to target a land-based landing. In preparation, SpaceX built a landing pad on the site of Cape Canaveral’s former Launch Complex 13 (LC-13), which it redesignated Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1). As well as deploying its payload successfully, the Orbcomm mission became the first to accomplish a successful landing, with the first stage touching down about nine and three-quarter minutes after liftoff.
The fifteenth and final Falcon 9 v1.1 was launched in January 2016, deploying the Jason 3 ocean research satellite. Flying out of Vandenberg, it was the first west-coast mission to attempt a first stage recovery via a new ASDS, also named Just Read the Instructions after the original which had now been retired. The vehicle performed a controlled landing, however one of the landing legs failed to lock in place and the stage toppled over after touchdown.
SpaceX made its first successful recovery at sea following the CRS-8 launch in April 2016. The first stage, Core 1021, landed aboard a new East coast ASDS, Of Course I Still Love You. A month later SpaceX recovered the first stage from a geostationary mission for the first time, following the launch of Japan’s JCSAT-14.
The company suffered a setback in September 2016, when a Falcon 9 vehicle exploded during a static fire test at Space Launch Complex 40. The static fire, which SpaceX perform a few days ahead of all launches, is a ground test which involves fuelling the Falcon 9 and test-firing its nine first stage engines.
Depending on customer requirements, this test could be conducted before or after the payload was mated to the rocket – in this case Israel’s Amos 6 satellite was aboard Falcon 9 for the static fire and was destroyed along with its carrier rocket. Bubbles of liquid or solid oxygen were shown to form between the outer and inner casing of the second stage COPVs, causing them to buckle and ignite through friction.
Falcon returned to flight in January 2017, launching ten Iridium-NEXT communications satellites.
Its next launch – in February with a Dragon spacecraft on the CRS-10 mission – was made from the Kennedy Space Center, using the same launch pad that had been used for eleven missions of the Apollo program – including Apollo 11 – the launch of the Skylab space station and eighty-two Space Shuttle missions.
SpaceX had leased the Kennedy Space Center’s historic Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) to support future manned Dragon missions and the larger Falcon Heavy rocket, however the pad was rushed into service while SLC-40 was repaired after the Amos 6 accident. Falcon 9 only returned to SLC-40 with last week’s launch.
In March of this year, SpaceX finally achieved its ambition of developing a reusable rocket. Core 1021, which had been recovered after the CRS-8 launch the previous year, was refurbished and used again for the deployment of the SES-10 communications satellite. The booster was recovered once again after the launch. Three more “flight-proven” first stages have since launched, all successfully completing their missions and returning to Earth once more.
Falcon 9 has completed seventeen successful launches in 2017 – more than any other rocket – with one further launch planned before the end of the year. On fourteen of these launches the first stage was recovered successfully, while the remaining three cores were expended intentionally, providing additional performance to boost heavier payloads into geostationary transfer orbit.
To date, fifteen of Falcon 9’s flights have carried Dragon spacecraft into orbit, in addition to the maiden flight and its Dragon Spacecraft Qualification Unit. Falcon 9 has flown eighteen geosynchronous missions, two of which have been dual-payload, to deploy twenty commercial communications satellites.
SpaceX has made four launches for Luxembourg-based SES S. A. – two of which have used flight-proven boosters. SES was the customer for SpaceX’s first geostationary launch, and the first re-flight of a previously-flown core earlier this year. The satellite aboard the most recent launch, SES-11, was a joint-venture between SES and EchoStar. EchoStar’s own EchoStar XXIII satellite was launched aboard Falcon 9 earlier this year.
SpaceX’s other repeat customers for geostationary launches include Eutelsat and Asia Broadcast Satellite, who shared the company’s two dual launches, and Hong Kong-based AsiaSat who have also launched two satellites via Falcon 9.
Falcon has also been used to deploy constellations of smaller communications satellites into low Earth orbit. Two dedicated launches in 2014 and 2015 placed a total of 18 Orbcomm Generation 2 satellites into orbit – a nineteenth satellite had previously been launched as a secondary payload on a Dragon mission. However, it was not deployed into a usable orbit.
Already this year SpaceX has made three launches for Iridium Communications – with a fourth planned for Saturday – each carrying ten satellites. Iridium has entrusted SpaceX with deploying its entire second-generation satellite constellation, which will initially consist of seventy-five satellites. Three further ten-satellite launches, plus a five-satellite launch paired with NASA’s GRACE Follow On mission, are planned next year.
Falcon has deployed several scientific satellites: Canada’s CASSIOPE and Taiwan’s Formosat 5 were carried to orbit under commercial contracts, while DSCOVR and Jason-3 – the latter a partnership between NASA, NOAA and French space agency CNES – were contracted by the US government.
It has taken SpaceX less than two years from reaching its twenty-fifth launch milestone to reaching its fiftieth, with the company achieving an impressive launch cadence during 2017. Earlier this year SpaceX flew its first national security missions, delivering the NROL-76 mission to orbit in May and the fifth flight of the X-37B spaceplane – which had previously only flown atop Atlas V rockets – in September.
The launch of Northrop Grumman’s Zuma spacecraft, believed to be on behalf of an undisclosed government agency, was delayed from November because of concerns over the rocket’s payload fairing. This is now expected to fly at the beginning of January.
2018 looks to be a busy year for SpaceX. As well as continuing to fly the unmanned version of Dragon to complete CRS missions to the space station, SpaceX is expected to begin test flights of the manned version, Dragon 2, which will eventually be used to carry crew into orbit. All being well, a first manned launch could occur as early as August.
SpaceX will also look to introduce Falcon Heavy. Based on the Falcon 9, but adding two more cores parallel to the first stage, Falcon Heavy will become the most powerful rocket flying worldwide when it makes its maiden flight from the Kennedy Space Center.
The launch, currently scheduled for mid-January, will use a new-build center core flanked by two flight-proven boosters.
In May, SpaceX will conduct another high-profile mission for the US Air Force, with a Falcon 9 deploying the first next-generation Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite. Another launch will carry NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) into orbit.In January, SpaceX will launch the first two prototype satellites for a large constellation of satellites it aims to deploy into low Earth orbit to provide worldwide broadband internet access. Microsat-2a and 2b will be carried as secondary payloads on the launch of Spain’s Paz radar-imaging satellite, currently scheduled for liftoff at the end of next month.
In a presentation to the International Astronomical Congress in September, Elon Musk reiterated SpaceX’s ambitions for space colonization, giving more details of SpaceX’s future plans. BFR, or “Big Falcon Rocket” (although a less polite version has also been used), will be developed both to support exploration missions and to replace the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy in launching satellites and ISS support missions.
Much larger than Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy, the BFR will be fully-reusable. The second stage would be either a cargo vehicle to deliver satellites into orbit before returning to Earth, or a manned spaceship capable of carrying one hundred people on interplanetary flights and landing on Mars or the Moon. Musk also indicated plans to use BFR for rapid passenger transportation between cities on Earth.
BFR will take you anywhere on Earth in less than 60 mins https://t.co/HWt9BZ1FI9
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 29, 2017
Twelve years ago, SpaceX was just another unproven startup with great ambition but little to back it up. Now they are one of the leading companies in the global launch market, which they have shaken up in the last few years with their ability to do things more cheaply than their competitors.
While Elon Musk continues to dream big, he now has a track record of success, and his ability to deliver on these dreams should not be underestimated.