June 17, 2013
The U.S. Air Force and launch Startup Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) have finally hammered out a road map to certification of the untested Falcon 9 Version 1.1 launch vehicle that is expected to compete to put sensitive Pentagon payloads into orbit.
This is the latest step by the Air Force to end the United Launch Alliance (ULA) monopoly on lofting such payloads. Crafted in 2006 from the competing launch businesses of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, ULA manages and operates the Atlas V and Delta IV Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) fleets.
Certification for the Falcon 9 V1.1 could be approved as soon as 2015, based on the requirements laid out in a June 7 cooperative research and development agreement (Crada) between the Air Force and SpaceX. This Crada specifically covers only the Falcon 9 V1.1 launch system, and does not include the also unproven Falcon Heavy.
The Air Force says it “anticipates entering into additional Cradas with SpaceX to evaluate its Falcon Heavy rocket and with Orbital Sciences [Corp.] for its Antares launch vehicle.” Both the Falcon 9 V1.1 and Falcon Heavy will rely on the new Merlin 1D engine, which has yet to fly.
SpaceX officials encountered an unexpected drop in pressure in the Merlin 1C engine during an Oct. 8, 2012, launch on the baseline Falcon 9 rocket. Though the primary payload was delivered for NASA intact, Orbcomm lost an experimental satellite. SpaceX spokeswoman Christana Ra says the company classifies the mission as “successful” because the primary mission was achieved.
However, an investigation discovered that a breach in one of the 1C engine casings allowed an escape of hot gas and prompted a secondary breach in the direction of the main fuel line. As a result, the Falcon 9 automatically opted against an engine restart, forcing the rocket to deliver the Orbcomm satellite into an unsuitably low orbit.
“We don't consider this to be a manufacturing or design flaw,” Ra says. “During testing, the main combustion chamber on this engine experienced a unique combination of environments compared to the other engines. While none of these observations exceeded demonstrated qualification margins, the combination of these environments likely exacerbated the material flaw in the engine's jacket.”