SpaceX preps Falcon 9R for flight

Late last week, SpaceX released video of a static fire test of its Falcon 9R (F9R) test vehicle, the successor to its Grasshopper vehicle used to test technologies for reusable launch vehicles. The static fire lasted about five second seconds, with the vehicle remaining on the pad at the company’s McGregor, Texas, test site.

“The F9R testing program is the next step towards reusability following completion of the Grasshopper program last year. Future testing, including that in New Mexico, will be conducted using the first stage of a Falcon 9 Reusable (F9R) as shown here, which is essentially a Falcon 9 v1.1 first stage with legs,” the company said in the video’s description. “F9R test flights in New Mexico will allow us to test at higher altitudes than we are permitted for at our test site in Texas, to do more with unpowered guidance and to prove out landing cases that are more-flight like.”

The mention of New Mexico above is a reference to SpaceX’s deal last year to conduct test flights from Spaceport America there. In October, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said those flights would begin by late December, but have yet to start. In comments Tuesday during a launch services panel at the Space Tech Expo conference in Long Beach, California, she said free flights of the F9R would begin soon, first in Texas and later from Spaceport America.

“We’re going to do some jumps with that in central Texas, and then once we finalize the pad in New Mexico, which I think we’re about a month away from that, then we’ll do as many flights as we can in New Mexico,” she said.

The F9R is one part (one leg?) of SpaceX’s reusability effort, with another being attempts to recover first stages of Falcon 9 rockets on missions like the upcoming launch of SpaceX’s third cargo mission to the ISS. Shotwell reiterated comments she made in a March radio interview that the company hopes to bring a Falcon 9 rocket stage back to a landing pad near the launch site before the end of this year, and reuse a stage on a launch in 2015.

Shotwell said she hopes they need as few as “one or two” recovery tests of Falcon 9 stages, but acknowledged the difficulty in attempting to bring back a rocket stage intact. “This is hard. This is actually really hard,” she said at Space Tech Expo. “We keep chipping away at it, though.”

6 comments to SpaceX preps Falcon 9R for flight

  • Patrick Kees

    I don’t take SpaceX’s talk of timelines seriously until it gets inside the 9 month window. Anything around a year or more is subject to massive change…but…when they say they’re going to do something within a year’s time, I start paying attention.

    Shotwell is taking an interesting rhetorical line here- the implicit expression of confidence with a statement about land-based recovery in 2014 contrasted with a reminder of task’s difficulty. This is language one uses when your organization is very confident they’ll be successful but because you haven’t done it yet, you need to publicly project a bit of modesty.

    I’m predicting 2nd half of 2015…and -here’s the nuance- I’m predicting it’ll land in the daylight. The reason is that a return to a landing pad will be heralded as a historic advancement in rocketry and in order to look historic, you need video and proper video of an event like this will only be possible in regular daylight.

    So between this and bands launching orbiting satellites to unlock music on iPhones, it continues to be interesting watching.

    • Neil

      So far the following are known facts:
      1. SpaceX came very close to a successful soft landing on their first attempt.
      2. Their next flight CRS-3, has been modified to counter the vehicle spin that caused the first failure using both RCS and legs.
      3. Continued testing via GH of landing control software and legs.
      4. A number of flights available this year (2014) for continued real testing. Something like 8 or 9.
      5. They’ve been working on the regulatory obstacles surrounding land landings for several years now.

      Now extapolations based on the above:
      1. No known obstacles have appeared in the testing regime other than the spin issue which I’m assuming has been characterised and solved.
      2. Even if they get behind on their manifest, they will still have a number of available flights for continued attempts.
      3. Land test late this year (my prediction but I’m an optimist and a SpaceX fan) and I agree, it’s gotta be during the day for posterity.


  • Gary Warburton

    Even more interesting will be everyone else`s reactions. Will the naysayers come up with some case which states that it has been done before or be finally won over? Will ULA begin to work on their own version of reusability or will they continue to say that the important thing is being reliable and that it isn`t that important? Will the europeans continue working toward Ariane 6 or will DLR put their foot down and refuse any attempt to go ahead with Ariane 6 and develop their own reusable launcher or will they sink more money into Reactionengines? Will the Russians begin to develop their own reusable launchers or will they ignore what SpaceX is doing? The reactions around the world will be something to watch.

    • Neil Shipley

      Yes it will be interesting.

      Possible reactions as I see it available to competing governement and commercial entities: attempt to compete by moving into R&D of reusables and new vehicles/engines or attempt political protectionism or some mix of both.

      We can already see ESA taking the former stance while ULA is taking a govenment protectionist position. Japan, China, Russia and India will I predict simply maintain the status quo as government programs and not attempt to compete or quite possibly a mixed approach.

      Personally I believe that if SpaceX is successful with even 1st stage reusables for F9 and FH, then they will own most of the commercial market. No one else will be able to come close to matching their pricing. This of course assumes no major setbacks and continuing demonstration of vehicle reliability.

      Of note is that the timelines being considered are no doubt likely to extend both for SpaceX and ESA since they are the only ones currently reacting to the SpaceX threat. It is interesting to observe that it would appear that SpaceX competitors have left their run very late. They probably have more resources however less focus. SpaceX probably has less resources however they have a high degree of focus and adaptability to changing circumstances.

      Of further note is that building market share for SpaceX is not simply about profitability but about fulfilling the company’s mission: to help make humanity a space faring civilisation. No other company in the business is driven by this ideal. In fact no government agency is either.

      A final comment. IIRC Elon has stated that he would prefer a private/public partnership for his Mars objective. So far that doesn’t seem very likely however should it look like SpaceX could achieve this without government aid, I believe you’d see one or more countries putting their hands up to be involved. Just an opinion.

  • Stephen Boulet

    I wonder to what extent having a public mandate of making humanity multiplanetary contributes to SpaceX’s formidable mindshare, which in turn leads to interested customers and a full launch manifest.

    • Neil

      Public mandate:
      I would suggest none and it’s not a public mandate unless all you’re considering is that the SpaceX internal mission is in the public arena.

      Current and future customers:
      Look only at capability, reliability and price. These factors would be ranked according to the customer’s internal risk ratings.

      As a means of attracting a talented workforce, then I’d agree that this is a factor for some but not all. Some would simply be there for the engineering challenge, not necessarily because of the long-term vision.

      Doubtful. Most funding is internal, some venture capital or via existing customers.


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