Shotwell on launch delay, reusability, and other issues

Falcon 9 for CRS-3

The Falcon 9 rocket that will launch the next Dragon spacecraft late Sunday evening is shown in its hangar in a photo released by SpaceX earlier this month. This is the first Falcon 9 to feature landing legs on its first stage. (credit: SpaceX)

In this week’s issue of The Space Review, I write about SpaceX’s upcoming launch, including its plans to test the recovery of the Falcon 9’s first stage, as part of a broader look at some of the issues facing the launch industry in general today. The article includes some quotes from SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell, who appeared Friday on David Livingston’s The Space Show program for an interview. Shotwell made some additional comments in the interview that didn’t make it into the article but are still worth noting.

In the interview, she said that the contamination detected in the trunk of the Dragon spacecraft was not the sole cause of the delay of the launch from March 16 to March 30. That contamination was just one of several factors, which she said included “struggling on some buffering with data transfer between here and Houston” and more time needed to work with the range regarding the recovery of the first stage. In addition to the contamination, she hinted that the Dragon team needed some time to catch their breaths. “So, it was really the combination of those four things where we said, ‘You know what, we need to step back'” and take more time to resolve all of those issues, she said.

Shotwell also discussed some of the changes SpaceX made since their previous attempt to try and recover the Falcon 9 first stage from September. She said engineers are “optimizing” the reentry burn by the first stage after separation and the landing burn before splashdown. “In addition, we have to get a little more stability on that stage as it comes in,” she said, which they’re doing with the optimized burns and an attitude control system.

Shotwell emphasized that these were test flights: “We’ll continue to make a little progress, probably take a step back, make some more progress, take another step back,” she said. “This is a really hard problem. I do believe we will solve it.” She did state that the company hopes to return a Falcon 9 stage to a landing site on land (rather than splashing down in the ocean, as this stage will do) later this year, and reuse a Falcon 9 first stage next year.

The reusable Falcon 9, she said, won’t have any affect on the payload capacity as published on its website. “Overall, this upgraded Falcon 9, which has flown three times, has about 30 percent more performance than what we put on the web, and that extra performance is reserved for us to do our reusability and recoverability demonstrations right now,” she said. That would explain why SpaceX has a contract to use a Falcon 9 to launch the SES-10 satellite in 2016, despite SES-10 weighing in at about 5,300 kilograms, above the published capacity of 4,850 kilograms.

Besides the Falcon 9 and its reusability, SpaceX is also hard at work on a crewed version of its Dragon spacecraft. Despite concerns about US access to the ISS given current tensions with Russia and NASA’s current reliance on Soyuz, Shotwell said she didn’t think it was feasible to greatly accelerate the development of a crewed Dragon. “We proposed a pretty forward-leaning program” for commercial crew, she said. “I don’t want to say that we couldn’t speed things up: we probably could, but it would have to be in lockstep with NASA.” She added that SpaceX current believes it can have a crewed Dragon ready “a little bit faster” than current NASA plans for flights in late 2016 or early 2017.

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