December ISS Mission Delayed By Dragon Upgrades

By Amy Svitak
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology

In the meantime, SpaceX is still sorting out technical troubles with a new version of its Falcon 9 rocket.

More than a year behind schedule, the Falcon 9 v1.1 is a significant departure from the baseline Falcon 9 that has launched four times since its first flight in December 2010. The changes include a complete redesign of the vehicle's Merlin 1 engine, known as the Merlin 1D, and a new octagonal configuration for the rocket's nine first-stage motors. Other enhancements include considerably longer fuel tanks and a wider payload fairing. All the upgrades are aimed at lofting more mass—including crew—to the ISS, while affording entry to the commercial launch market. Falcon 9 has more than $1 billion in commercial-launch backlog to execute in the coming years.

Previously slated to debut Sept. 15 from SpaceX's new launch pad at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., the company shifted the Falcon 9 v1.1 mission to the end of September following a recent static-fire test. SpaceX founder, CEO and Chief Technology Officer Elon Musk stated on Twitter Sept. 13 that during the 2-sec. test, the rocket's nine engines achieved full thrust, but that “some anomalies” need to be investigated. Two days later, he tweeted plans to conduct a second static-fire test before launching Sept. 29-30.

For its first flight, the new Falcon 9 is expected to deliver a small Canadian science satellite to an elliptical polar orbit. If successful, this will clear the way for SpaceX to conduct its first commercial mission to geostationary transfer orbit, launching the SES-8 satellite for SES, the world's second-largest satellite fleet operator by revenue. SES-8 was expected to launch from Cape Canaveral in the first quarter of this year. SES says it is waiting to deliver the Orbital Sciences Corp.-built spacecraft to Vandenberg until the first Falcon 9 v1.1 mission is successfully lofted.

In addition to SES-8, Shotwell says SpaceX is planning to put the Orbital-built Thaicom 6 communications satellite into orbit by year-end before launching at “a cadence of almost one a month in 2014.” For now, the company is producing four Merlin 1D engines per week, but plans to increase the rate to five per week starting in January, she says. This pace is necessary to keep up with SpaceX's busy launch manifest, which indicates 12 Falcon 9 v1.1 missions next year, including the one to the ISS in February.

“Our production is now ahead of our launch,” Shotwell adds. “We have to get these vehicles to the launch site and fly them, but production should not be an issue going forward.”

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