Demo Flight a First Step to Commercial Jaunts to ISS
The SpaceX Falcon 9

Image above: SpaceX successfully test fires its Falcon 9 rocket March 13 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. The firing clears a milestone toward the inaugural flight of a privately developed spaceship. Photo courtesy of Chris Thompson/SpaceX
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Future payloads and cargo to the International Space Station will one day be carried by commercially developed vehicles for NASA. The maiden demonstration flight of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft is one step closer after a successful 3.5-second first-stage hot fire test on March 13, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex-40.

SpaceX Director of Mission Assurance and Integration Scott Henderson said the launch pad is fully activated.

"We've been through a successful booster tanking test," Henderson said. "And the static fire of the first stage demonstrated the full countdown sequence through engine ignition."

The two-stage fully integrated launch vehicle on the pad consists of a first stage powered by nine SpaceX-developed Merlin 1C engines, a second stage, an interstage, an unpressurized trunk and the Dragon spacecraft qualification unit.

SpaceX was awarded procurement for three demonstration flights under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, or COTS, program managed by NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

A subsequent contract for Commercial Resupply Services, or CRS, was awarded in late 2008 to resupply the space station. The SpaceX CRS contract provides for 12 missions to resupply the station from 2011 through 2015.

Steve Cain, who is the NASA Kennedy Space Center COTS/CRS project manager, said the COTS role is to help enable commercial space capabilities.

"The team has supported the SpaceX design and facility development reviews, sharing the center's engineering expertise and other capabilities when needed," Cain said.

Kennedy worked with Space Florida to acquire several high-pressure tanks and dewars from the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in California for SpaceX and other COTS partners. Government Recovery Act funds were used to complete Launch Complex-40 upgrades. The lightning towers, power substation, facilities and conductive floor for the integration facility were upgraded or repaired to improve reliability.

Henderson said the NASA COTS office has been instrumental in helping SpaceX stand up its Florida launch site and sharing technical lessons that will directly help the company achieve mission success.

"Our primary objective is a successful launch, which validates our booster structures, propulsion and avionics systems," Henderson said. "We also plan to recover the first stage to explore the possibility of refurbishing key components, including the engines, for future flight."

During the flight test, the rocket will launch at a due east trajectory over the horizon. The first stage will separate and is planned to be recovered 400 miles off Florida's coast, or about three times the distance of shuttle solid rocket booster retrieval. The second stage, trunk and Dragon spacecraft will be inserted into a low Earth orbit. For this flight test, the Dragon spacecraft will send telemetry but it will not maneuver.

"This demonstration flight is a logical lead-in to the NASA COTS demonstrations, which will prove our ability to reach the space station, maneuver close to it and ultimately mate to station and pass cargo back and forth," Henderson said.

"There are three demonstration flights scheduled for NASA's COTS program," Cain said. "Each one has a specific mission objective."

The first flight test, targeted for this summer, will follow the same parameters as the SpaceX flight, with the addition of four orbits by the Dragon spacecraft, a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean and spacecraft recovery. SpaceX also plans to retrieve the Falcon 9 first stage and engines.

The second flight test is targeted for fall 2010. The Falcon 9 will launch at a 51-degree inclination, which is the same as space shuttle missions to the station. The Dragon spacecraft and trunk will "dock" to a predetermined point in space and then be brought in communication range of the station, followed by splashdown and recovery.

The third flight test, targeted for early 2011, will follow the same parameters as the second flight, with an exciting twist. The Dragon spacecraft with trunk attached will fly close to the station so that the robotic arm can be operated to grab and bring it in to dock.

Cain said, "This third flight has the potential to bring cargo up to the station and retrieve cargo for return to Earth."

Linda Herridge
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center