Inaugural Falcon 9 / Dragon Flight Hardware Update

Monday, January 4, 2010

The SpaceX team kicked off 2010 with the successful full duration orbit insertion firing of the Falcon 9 second stage at our Texas test site (details below). This was the final stage firing required for launch, so the second stage will soon be packaged for shipment and should arrive at Cape Canaveral by end of month. Depending on how well full vehicle integration goes, launch should occur one to three months later.

2009 was an exciting year for SpaceX. In July, with the successful launch of RazakSAT, Falcon 1 became the first privately developed liquid fuel rocket to put a commercial satellite in orbit. That same month, DragonEye — SpaceX's Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) sensor — launched on NASA's STS-127 shuttle mission and successfully completed flight system trials in preparation for guiding the Dragon spacecraft as it approaches the International Space Station. We also hosted the first astronaut training day at our Hawthorne headquarters in preparation for flights to the Space Station.

Last year also saw the successful arc jet testing of PICA-X, SpaceX's high performance heat shield material developed in collaboration with NASA, which will be used to protect our Dragon spacecraft on reentry. And our Merlin Vacuum engine demonstrated the highest efficiency ever for an American hydrocarbon rocket engine. SpaceX also signed deals with several key customers, including CONAE (Argentina’s National Commission on Space Activity), Astrium and Orbcomm.

The ongoing evolution of the commercial space industry was recently featured as the cover story (“The New Space Rush”) in Popular Science magazine. The article provided a great perspective on the industry as a whole, but I disagree with the subheading, “Who Needs NASA?”. If you read the article, it's clear their intent was just to convey excitement for the developments in commercial space, but obviously NASA is and always will be critical to the future of space exploration, particularly at the outer edge where there is no commercial market. Without NASA, SpaceX certainly would not be where it is today.

As we get closer to our first Falcon 9 launch, SpaceX would like to thank NASA, the Air Force, the FAA, and our commercial customers for their continued support. And, of course, I would like to thank the whole SpaceX team for their unwavering commitment to our company and our mission, especially over these last few months. Through their hard work and dedication, 2010 promises to be another great year.


Falcon 9 First Stage

Prior to arrival at the Cape, the Falcon 9 first stage arrived at our Texas Test Site. There, we did a full checkout, raised it up to the top of the 72 meter (235 foot) tall test stand, and conducted two successful nine engine test firings — the first 10 seconds long, followed by a 30 second long firing three days later.

Test firing of the full flight first stage of Falcon 9, conducted Oct 16, 2009 at the SpaceX Texas Test Facility in McGregor.
Click to play video, and note the engines gimballing (steering) in the upper left camera.

Everything performed as planned; we then shipped the first stage to Florida and have commenced final processing in the hangar at the SpaceX launch site. Once all propulsion and avionics checkout processes are complete, we will move forward with stage mate, to be followed closely by vehicle transfer to the transporter erector, and a static fire shortly thereafter.

Falcon 9 first stage arriving in the hangar at Space Launch Complex 40, Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Photo credit: SpaceX.

Falcon 9 Second Stage

Flight hardware for the Falcon 9 second stage also shipped to Texas, where it completed static load testing, and then was integrated with the previously tested Merlin Vacuum second stage engine. After performing system checkouts, we raised the stage up on to the newly completed Upper Stage test stand.

Installing the Falcon 9 second stage into the newest test stand at our Texas test site.
Photo credit: Chris Thompson, SpaceX.

In November we conducted the initial second stage test firing lasting forty seconds. This test involved a new test stand, a new flight stage, and it occurred as planned, on the first attempt without aborts or recycles.

First test firing of the full flight second stage of Falcon 9, conducted at the SpaceX Texas Test Facility in McGregor.

On January 2, 2010, the team completed a full duration orbit insertion firing (329 seconds) of the integrated Falcon 9 second stage. At full power, the Merlin Vacuum engine generates 411,000 N (92,500 lbs force) of thrust, and operates with the highest performance ever for an American-made hydrocarbon rocket engine.

Full duration orbit insertion firing of the Falcon 9 second stage, conducted on January 2, 2010. Click to play video.
(Click to play video)

Having multiple stands for testing individual engines, first and second stages, and Draco thrusters allows us great freedom in processing hardware for flight. Our manifest currently lists more than twenty-five Falcon 1e and Falcon 9 missions, seventeen of those with Dragon spacecraft, so all of our stands will be kept very active.

Merlin Vacuum Engine Expansion Nozzle

We recently fabricated and formed the first flight expansion nozzle for the Merlin Vacuum second stage engine. Made of a thin, high temperature alloy, the large expansion nozzle extends from the regeneratively cooled portion of the engine, and improves its performance in the vacuum of space. Standing 2.7 meters (9 feet) tall and 2.4 m (8 ft) in diameter, it resembles the nozzle used on our Falcon 1's second stage engine, only larger.

The Merlin Vacuum engine expansion nozzle measures 2.7 meters (9 feet) tall,
and most of it has a wall thickness of about 1/3 of a millimeter (1/64 of an inch).
Photo credit: SpaceX.


The interstage physically joins the first and second stages, and houses the Merlin Vacuum engine during first stage ascent. The carbon composite cylinder measures 3.6 meters (12 feet) in diameter and nearly 8 m (26 ft) tall.

The top edge of the interstage contains a set of clamping collets that join the first and second stages during liftoff and ascent. After the first stage shuts down, the collets release, and three pneumatic pushers smoothly and forcefully separate the stages, clearing the second stage engine for ignition.

We recently conducted a series of full-scale tests verifying the performance of the separation system under a variety of load conditions. We placed the fully configured interstage in the Falcon 9 structural test stand in Texas, and mounted a large mass on top to simulate the second stage. During testing, the collets release the stage and the pushers force the simulated second stage high into the air. See video below.

The Falcon 9 Interstage (black cylinder at lower center) pushes away the simulated second stage (blue cylinder above).
A series of restraining cables and counterweights capture the load and prevent it from falling downwards.
(Click to play video)

This stage separation system resembles a larger version of the one successfully used on our Falcon 1 vehicle. Note that this system uses no explosives, making it safer to assemble and deploy, and increasing its overall reliability, as we can conduct multiple tests of every flight component, whereas an individual explosive device carries the risk of being fully testable only once — in actual use.

In addition to the stage separation system, the interstage also houses the parachute system that will aide in first stage recovery. Our Cape team has mated the interstage to the first stage and continues to finalize vehicle wiring in preparation for complete vehicle integration.

The Falcon 9 flight interstage in the Cape Canaveral launch site hangar prior to mating with the first stage.
Photo credit: SpaceX.

Dragon Qualification Spacecraft

As mentioned above, the inaugural Falcon 9 flight will loft our Dragon qualification spacecraft into orbit. After completing testing in Texas, the Dragon spacecraft shipped to the Cape in preparation for first flight.

First flight Dragon nosecone (tan, at left), spacecraft (middle) and trunk (right) in process at the SLC-40
launch pad hangar in Florida. Photo credit: SpaceX.

In preparation for flight, the Dragon spacecraft was mated to the trunk (see below), which in future flights will house both unpressurized payloads and the vehicle's solar panels. By flying the Dragon spacecraft configuration, we will obtain valuable data about its performance during the climb to orbit, which will support the following Falcon 9 flight — the first launch under the NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. On that flight, an operational Dragon spacecraft will make several orbit of the Earth, followed by reentry and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.

Pressurized portion of the Dragon spacecraft, top, mated to the cylindrical unpressurized trunk
section below, with nose cap in foreground. As Dragon has been designed from the start for human
transport, even the cargo and demonstration versions include windows
(circle at top, covered for protection during painting). Photo credit: SpaceX.

Launch Operations – Cape Canaveral SLC-40

As the flight hardware converges on Florida, many significant activities continue around our launch site in preparation for first flight.

Launch Mount

As with our Falcon 1 rocket, the Falcon 9 uses a “hold before launch” system where the launch mount firmly restrains the rocket as it develops full thrust. Once engine performance is verified, the rocket commands the launch mount to set it free.

The Falcon 9's four-part launch mount assembly performs several significant tasks. At rest, it supports the fully fueled Falcon 9, with a mass of over 330,000 kilograms (nearly three-quarters of a million pounds). Next, as the first stage's nine Merlin engines fire and reach full power of nearly 5 MN (over 1 million pounds force), the mounts must hold the vehicle down against the upward thrust.

Finally, upon command, the mounts release the rocket and then move out of the way, giving the nine engines maximum clearance as they lift the vehicle away from Earth.

Months of construction and testing converged into a series of final tests of the launch mount system. The four mount towers were attached to the base of the Transporter / Erector, and their hydraulically powered actuators checked to verify performance.

We then conducted a set of live load tests that simulated the significant downward and upward forces present during the launch sequence. We placed an actual Falcon 9 truss (the structure that joins the nine Merlin engines to the vehicle) into the launch mount, and used a crane and pneumatic cylinders to simulate the forces at liftoff. On command, the launch restraints let the truss fly free. See the video below.

Launch mount system test, with a crane pulling up on a Falcon 9 engine mount truss to simulate the
forces it will experience at liftoff. After releasing the rocket, the mount towers move back to give
maximum clearance to the departing vehicle.
(Click to play video)

Recovery Preparations

Both the Falcon 9 first stage and Dragon spacecraft are designed to be recovered. For this first demonstration flight, the Dragon spacecraft will remain in orbit but our team will attempt recovery of the Falcon 9 first stage and has commenced with recovery testing operations (see photo below).

Flotation testing of a portion of the recovery raft that will aid in returning the Falcon 9 first stage to land after flight.
Photo credit: SpaceX.

Other progress at SLC-40 includes:

  • Nearing completion of a new hydraulic system to provide pressurized RP-1 propellant in support of hangar and pad checkout of vehicle Thrust Vector Control (TVC) systems.
  • Nearing completion of new gaseous nitrogen system (used for pressurization, line purges, etc.), and a new helium system (used for vehicle pressurization, cooling and engine startup).
  • Completion of the liquid nitrogen delivery system and final fill of 4,900 gallons to the site's storage tank.
  • Installing new Payload Environmental Control System on the pad to keep future cargo loads comfortable during processing and preparation for launch.
  • Functional testing of the new helium fill system. During loading, we chill the Falcon 9's helium storage tanks down to minus 184 degrees C (minus 300 degrees F).

  • Multiple test deployments of the Transporter / Erector system (shown above), and the addition of vehicle fill and drain plumbing and umbilical support systems.
  • Completed installation of a new dual-redundant, fault tolerant digital information network in support of mission operations and launch pad systems.
  • Flow tests verifying the systems that will apply large amounts of water to the launch pad to provide noise and fire suppression during liftoff.

Mission Operations

Radio Tests

Back at our Hawthorne CA headquarters in mid-October we conducted a complete end-to-end test of our Dragon radio communications system with the NASA geosynchronous Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS).

From SpaceX's Hawthorne headquarters, Dragon's 20 watt transmitter and separate receiver antenna (rectangles at left)
communicate with NASA's TDRS 5 satellite on orbit 35,800 km (22,240 mi) above the Earth.
Photo credit: SpaceX.

The SpaceX communications flight hardware, developed with subcontractors Delta Microwave (Low Noise Amplifier), Quasonix (transmitter and receiver), and Haigh-Farr (antennas), emulated a complete Dragon spacecraft comm link, and successfully sent and received data through the TDRSS network. Commands were dispatched from our Hawthorne headquarters command station, to NASA JSC in Houston, across Texas to the TDRSS White Sands Ground Terminal, up to the TDRS 5 Spacecraft in geosynchronous orbit, and back down to the Dragon receiver on the ground in Hawthorne.

The test series demonstrated telemetry and command transmission at a variety of data rates up to 2.1 Mbps, and paves the way for using TDRSS on all fifteen of our Dragon missions for the COTS and Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) programs.

COTS Flight 2 Rehearsals

Also in Hawthorne, we recently completed a very successful joint mission simulation with NASA's Mission Operations Directorate where the team rehearsed the operations that will be conducted during the second COTS flight (the third Falcon 9 launch).

During that mission, dubbed “C2”, a Dragon Spacecraft will approach within 10 kilometers (6 miles) of the International Space Station, and check out navigation, communication and control systems in preparation for actual approach and berthing with the ISS.

Computer illustration showing a Dragon spacecraft approaching the ISS.
Image credit: SpaceX.

These tests help us progress towards the day when SpaceX will begin a series of twelve CRS cargo delivery missions for NASA to support the continued operation of the ISS.

Stay tuned for more Falcon 9 updates in the coming weeks as we head for launch in early 2010.

Dragon/Falcon 9 Update

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

We are now only a few months away from having the inaugural Falcon 9 launch vehicle on its launch pad at Cape Canaveral and ready to fly! The actual launch date will depend on weather and how we fit into the overall launch schedule at the Cape, so that is a little harder to predict. Based on prior experience, launch could be anywhere from one to three months after Falcon 9 is integrated at the Cape in November.

This initial test flight will carry our Dragon spacecraft qualification unit (see photos below), providing us with valuable aerodynamic and performance data for the Falcon 9 configuration that will fly on the following COTS and CRS missions for NASA. The second Falcon 9 flight will be the first flight of Dragon under the NASA COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) program, where we will demonstrate Dragon's orbital maneuvering, communication and reentry capabilities.

The Dragon qualification unit being outfitted with test Draco thruster housings. Depending on mission requirements, Dragon will carry as many as eighteen Draco thrusters per capsule.

Though it will initially be used to transport cargo, the Dragon spacecraft was designed from the beginning to transport crew. Almost all the necessary launch vehicle and spacecraft systems employed in the cargo version of Dragon will also be employed in the crew version of Dragon. As such, Dragon's first cargo missions will provide valuable flight data that will be used in preparation for future crewed flight. This allows for a very aggressive development timeline—approximately 3 years from the time funding is provided to go from cargo to crew.

Test fitting the thermal protection panels that surround the thrusters on the Dragon qualification capsule. The panels must be strong, lightweight, and able to withstand the extreme conditions of space, as well as perform in close proximity to the operating thrusters.

The three year timeframe is driven by development of the launch escape system. This includes 18 months to complete development and qualification of the escape engine, in parallel with structures design, guidance, navigation & control, and supporting subsystems.

Radial bulkheads being installed on the completed pressure vessel for the first COTS Dragon spacecraft. The bays between the bulkheads house Draco thrusters, propellant tanks, parachutes and other vital systems.

Another 12 months will be required to perform various pad and flight abort tests, which are slated to take place at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's Wallops Flight Facility (Virginia). Under this timeline, the first crew launch would take place 30 months from the receipt of funding, leaving six months of schedule margin to allow for the unexpected.


With the help of NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office, the DragonEye Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) sensor has already undergone flight system trials in preparation for guiding the Dragon spacecraft as it approaches the International Space Station (ISS).

DragonEye launched aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour on July 15th, 2009 and tested successfully in proximity of the ISS (photos below). DragonEye provides three-dimensional images based on the amount of time it takes for a single laser pulse from the sensor to the reach a target and bounce back, providing range and bearing information from the Dragon spacecraft to the ISS.

DragonEye aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour as seen from the International Space Station. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Images on right captured by the DragonEye LIDAR system during its recent flight aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour (ISS image courtesy NASA).

Image on the right captured by the DragonEye system during its recent flight aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour (ISS Image courtesy NASA).

Dragon Parachute Load Testing

We have also recently completed the parachute load test which was the last part of the Dragon primary structure qualification. Dragon withstood both nominal and off-nominal vertical parachute loads up to 48,000 lbf applied to the main and drogue fittings. The spacecraft is being shipped back to California from our Texas test site where it will continue preparations for its first flight.

Dragon spacecraft undergoing load testing at SpaceX's testing site in McGregor, TX

Dragon with temporary frame installed over it to measure deflections at the ISS docking interface.

First Stage Engines

With twenty-two Falcon 9 flights currently listed on our launch manifest, we're continuing to ramp up all manufacturing lines. The pace of engine production continues to grow, with recent efforts focused on the nine Merlin engines, and one Merlin Vacuum engine for the upcoming inaugural Falcon 9 flight, as well as an identical set of Merlins for the second Falcon 9 flight. Together, the nine Merlin engines produce over 1 million pounds of thrust, and consume over half a million pounds of fuel and oxidizer in just under three minutes as they push the Falcon 9 out of Earth's atmosphere and into orbit.

Nine Merlin engines for the inaugural Falcon 9 flight, ready for integration on to the thrust structure.

Second Stage Engines

At our test facility in McGregor, Texas, testing continues on the Merlin Vacuum engine which will power the Falcon 9 second stage to orbit. Qualification testing was completed last week, and will be followed closely by acceptance testing of the first Merlin Vacuum flight engine for the inaugural launch.

Test firing the Merlin Vacuum development engine on our newest test stand at our Test Site in McGregor, Texas, just outside of Waco. Depending on schedule needs, we can conduct two or more tests per day on this test stand alone.

Click here to view the video tour of our Texas Test site with VP of Propulsion, Tom Mueller. Also, check out the September 2009 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine that profiles Tom and our propulsion systems.


The nine flight-ready Merlin first stage engines were integrated with the truss structure that evenly distributes their thrust upwards into the first stage tank. Above the truss, the carbon composite skirt (primer green in the photos below) houses the plumbing system that distributes the liquid oxygen (LOX) and RP-1 fuel to the engines.

The entire system was assembled and checked out in our Hawthorne facility, and then shipped to Texas for integration with the first stage propellant tanks, which recently completed proof and leak testing there. The F9 second stage has been shipped to Texas and is being prepped for structural testing which will begin this week, followed closely by stage separation testing.

Weighing in at over 7,700 kg (17,000 lbs), the thrust assembly and nine Merlin engines represents over half the dry mass of the Falcon 9 first stage.

A pair of cranes rotates the entire assembly to horizontal, and then lowers it on to the shipping frame. We then cover everything in a protective layer of shrink-wrap in preparation for travel.

The completed Falcon 9 engine structure departs for Texas, where we'll integrate it with the first stage tank, and conduct a test firing before heading to Cape Canaveral for launch.

Elsewhere in our Hawthorne plant, the launch vehicle for the second Falcon 9 flight is well underway. On the Friction Stir Welding (FSW) machine (above), the first stage tank passed the mid-point with the completion of the fuel tank welding. Additional barrel sections and one more dome will complete the LOX tank. The primary tank structure for the second flight's second stage has already been fabricated and is being processed next to the second stage for the first flight.

Note that the first and second stages use a common architecture such as the same 3.7 meter (12 foot) diameter aluminum-lithium barrels and domes, and we manufacture them utilizing the same systems and tooling. This approach greatly reduces overhead, inventory and production costs, and simultaneously contributes to increased reliability. These are essential aspects of how SpaceX improves reliability and lowers the cost of access to space.


The vital electronics and software systems that will operate the Falcon 9 first flight have been integrated and completed final testing, as have our Dragon communications units destined for installation aboard the ISS. SpaceX's COTS UHF Communications Unit is scheduled to fly aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis on STS-129 this coming November. Read full press release here.

The COTS UHF Communications Unit system, shown here prior to delivery to NASA, will be delivered via the Space Shuttle to the ISS. The system will be installed prior to the approach and berthing on the final COTS mission, and will also see regular use in support of our continuing CRS cargo resupply missions.

Launch Operations

The Cape Canaveral launch site build-up and activation processes continues at Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40), our launch pad located a few miles south of the Space Shuttle launch sites on the Florida ‘space coast’. We have completed the new LOX ground handling and storage systems that will supply our Falcon 9 vehicles.

And we are finishing up numerous other systems that support safe and efficient launch operations. Other vital systems now in process include support for the storage and handling of RP-1 fuel, as well as nitrogen, helium, and the water deluge systems that help protect the pad and vehicle from the significant levels of thermal and acoustic energy created during launch.

Conducting the initial filling of the big liquid oxygen storage tank at Space Launch Complex 40.

Falcon 9 Ready To Fly
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