SpaceX Falcon 9 set for first NASA demonstration flight

CBS News

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL--SpaceX engineers snipped off the end of a second stage rocket nozzle extension, removing an area with two small cracks, and pressed ahead with work to ready the company's Falcon 9 rocket for launch Wednesday on a long-awaited test fight, the first of three NASA-sponsored demonstration missions.

Engineers work near the second stage of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. (Credit: Spaceflight Now/Justin Ray)
Along with testing the powerful 10-engine Falcon 9 rocket, making its second flight since a maiden trip to orbit in June, SpaceX hopes to put its automated Dragon cargo module through a brief maiden flight of its own, carrying out maneuvers to simulate a space station approach, before plunging back into the atmosphere for a splash-down in the Pacific Ocean off the West Coast of California.

It will be the first commercial launch, re-entry and spacecraft recovery ever attempted, demonstrating an ability to not only deliver supplies to low-Earth orbit but also to return cargo and experiment samples from the space station, a capability that will be lost when NASA's space shuttle is retired next year.

"I think we have a very good chance of the rocket succeeding," SpaceX founder Elon Musk told Spaceflight Now. "As long as something didn't go wrong in the manufacture or building process of the rocket, it should perform same as last time. We've actually corrected a few minor bugs.

"Nevertheless, it is only the second launch. For some bizarre reason, statistically speaking, second launches of new rockets don't have a great track record. I hope we buck that trend. I would say it's something on the order of 90 percent likely that the rocket will succeed."

As for the new Dragon module, an automated spacecraft capable of adjusting its orbit as required and executing a hypersonic re-entry for a pinpoint splashdown, Musk was more circumspect, saying "it's probably a 60 percent chance (of success). Complete success meaning that it does everything it's supposed to do, that it lands fully intact and it's just where we expected."

Regardless of how the initial NASA-sponsored test flight turns out, agency officials said they are committed to SpaceX and the promise of commercial cargo delivery, not surprising given the critical nature of space station resupply. If the commercial resupply program fails to stay roughly on schedule, NASA could be forced to reduce the size of the space station crew in 2012 or 2013.

"This is an extremely exciting milestone for both NASA and SpaceX," said Phil McAlister, acting director of commercial space flight development at NASA headquarters. "We are getting close to the time when e can successfully deliver cargo to the International Space Station and I certainly want to congratulate SpaceX on the progress they have made to date. We've got an extremely challenging year ahead with the remaining milestones. But getting this far, this fast, has been a remarkable achievement."

As for the potential impact of a failure, Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of the commercial crew and cargo program at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, said "it is not in any way an indictment, for or against the overall program, if you have anomalies."

"We expect anomalies," he said. "Again, the purpose of the test flight is to learn. So as long as we're learning and we have a clear path to demonstration flight two, we would consider that successful. We're not going to know until the end of the program if we've been ultimately successful in achieving the capability of delivering these services to ISS. But we can say to date, this has been a remarkably successful program."

Mounted on a firing stand at launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled for takeoff during a window that opens at 9 a.m. EST (GMT-5) and closes at 12:22 p.m. NASA plans to provide live television coverage of the launching until the vehicle is out of sight. SpaceX will provide coverage after that through a company webcast and Twitter updates.

SpaceX had hoped to launch the rocket Tuesday, but examination of close-out photos revealed two small cracks in a nozzle extension used by the second stage's single Merlin engine.

An artist's rendering of a SpaceX Dragon cargo craft approaching the International Space Station. (Credit: SpaceX)
The niobium alloy nozzle extension, which is 9 feet long and 8 feet across at the bottom, is intended to maximize engine efficiency during operation in the vacuum of space. It is about twice the thickness of a soda can at the end. The cracks were in a low-stress area near the bottom of the nozzle and SpaceX engineers decided to simply shorten the extension, cutting away the area with the cracks.

NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services -- COTS -- program is an initiative intended to encourage development of private sector rockets to deliver cargo to the International Space Station after the space shuttle is retired next year.

SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to provide 12 cargo flights to the station for delivery of more than 44,000 pounds of equipment and supplies. The contract may be expanded to cover additional flights, boosting its value to some $3.1 billion. Three test flights are planned under a separate contract valued at up to $278 million. SpaceX has spent more than $600 million of its own money developing the Falcon family of rockets, the Dragon spacecraft and other components.

"In our program we measure progress and success with incremental milestones," said Lindenmoyer. "We've laid out a series of 22 milestones over the term of the agreement for a maximum of up to $278 million. And we have paid SpaceX $253 million for the 17 milestones they've completed to date. They have five left. This first demonstration COTS mission ... is the next milestone and we're certainly looking forward to that."

The first test flight of a Falcon 9 rocket was conducted last June when a dummy payload was lofted into orbit. The rocket met its major test objectives, although an unexpected roll developed that caught engineers by surprise, the apparent result of heating on a second-stage motor steering actuator. Additional insulation was added to correct the problem.

The rocket scheduled for launch Wednesday is carrying the first SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule that eventually will be used to ferry supplies to the space station and return trash and other cargo to Earth. The Dragon spacecraft can deliver up to 13,228 pounds of cargo to the space station's orbit with a pressurized volume of 245 cubic feet and an unpressurized volume of 490 cubic feet.

During normal space station missions, the Dragon spacecraft will be equipped with solar panels. During its maiden flight, batteries will be used.

The Dragon capsule is expected to be launched into a 186-mile-high orbit tilted 34 degrees to the equator. It will not approach the space station. After a few orbits, the Dragon module will re-enter the atmosphere and splash down in the Pacific Ocean off the West Coast of California.

"We feel at this point very confident in the software and the avionics system," Musk said. "It is quite a complex system that's meant to be very robust in space."

An artist's rendering of a SpaceX Dragon cargo craft during descent to an ocean splashdown after a flight to the International Space Station. (Credit: SpaceX)
After separating from the Falcon 9's second stage, the Dragon module's 18 high-performance maneuvering thrusters will be exercised, "essentially pretending as if it were berthing with the real space station, and then come back a couple of orbits later," Musk said.

"Probably the most dangerous portion of the whole thing is that re-entry. Is our primary heat shield constructed properly? Can it keep everything inside nice and cool? Will the parachutes deploy when they're supposed to? Those are the two biggest risks, I think, of the whole thing."

SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said the company had hoped to launch the first COTS mission earlier, but took its time perfecting the complex systems in the Dragon cargo module.

"Dragon is a very complicated spacecraft," she said. "It's a spacecraft that's designed to withstand the incredible heating and pressure loads during re-entry, we've got eight monomethyl hydrazine and N2O4 (nitrogen tetroxide) thrusters which are dual redundant. We've got dual redundant drogue parachutes, dual redundant mains, a guidance navigation and control system that is designed to keep us in a tight berthing box while the International Space Station arm picks us up. We've got new avionics, new lithium batteries.

"So it's a very complicated spacecraft and there's a lot of work to do. And it would be foolish for us to launch that spacecraft sooner than it's ready to go. So we've taken our time on this and we're willing to take the hits."

SpaceX hopes to launch the second and third COTS demonstration flights next spring and summer, setting the stage for the first actual space station resupply mission in the late November timeframe.

"SpaceX is all in on getting Dragon to station next year," Shotwell said. "There is pessimism, it is a new program, we've experienced delays in the past. But getting Falcon 9 to orbit early this summer was enormously helpful. And now we need to get Dragon flying."

Along with recovering the Dragon module, SpaceX also hopes to retrieve the first stage of the Falcon 9 booster. The company is renting a space shuttle booster recovery ship that will be standing by off Cape Canaveral to haul it back to shore.