The SpaceX Triple Trifecta

SpaceX Trifecta: Falcon Heavy, Falcon 9 Block 5, Dragon 2

By Dale Skran, NSS Executive Vice President
Copyright 2018

SpaceX has three major goals for 2018:

  • Bring the Falcon Heavy to operational status
  • Bring the Block 5 Falcon 9 to operational status
  • Bring the Dragon 2 crewed capsule to operational status

If all three of these goals are achieved, SpaceX will have catapulted itself from merely being the largest U.S. launch provider, to a global one-stop shop that has the potential to truly dominate the worldwide launch market in virtually all categories. However, a closer look at each of these goals reveals just how challenging the “Trifecta” really will be for SpaceX.

With the recent successful launch of Elon Musk’s Red Tesla roadster in the direction of Mars, SpaceX would appear to be well on its way to achieving the first goal. The only kink to be worked out relates to running out of ignition fluid while trying to land the center core of the Falcon Heavy on a drone ship, something one suspects SpaceX can readily overcome. However, two more Falcon Heavy launches are scheduled for 2018, one with the Air Force, and another with a commercial payload. Both must go well to check this box, but most importantly, both need to fully utilize “Block 5” technology, which we will now consider.

So far SpaceX has demonstrated remarkable success in landing first stages, and then re-using them in later flights. However, no first stage has been used more than once. Most of the first stages re-used so far have been the “Block 3” version of the “Full Thrust” F9, while a few have been “Block 4.” To achieve its goal of re-using each first stage up to ten times with minimal refurbishment, the more powerful and more reliable “Block 5” technology, which has not yet flown, is required. There are a number of aspects to “Block 5” including but not limited to:

  • Using new design turbine blades that minimize cracking
  • A redesigned COPV (helium tank) that is designed to be safer
  • Running the Merlin engines at higher power levels
  • Titanium grid fins for improved landing authority/control

This is a fairly tall order, but the first flight of “Block 5” is expected in late April. However, one flight is not sufficient to check off this box since NASA is requiring seven successful Block 5 flights before a crew is allowed on top of one. There is a good chance SpaceX (which has already done 5 launches in 2018, and is targeting a total of 30) can do this during 2018, but it will be a remarkable achievement.

Finally, SpaceX is planning both an uncrewed and a crewed flight to the ISS of the Dragon 2 capsule, plus a launch abort test for Dragon 2. There is a lot of new territory here for SpaceX with the Dragon 2: spacesuits, environmental control and life support system (ECLSS), a crew, docking with the ISS rather than berthing, etc., plus the crewed flight is planned for late in the year, making this milestone especially challenging. Stuck in the middle of all this is a third flight to test the crew escape system on a real launch.

The “trifecta” described above, can be viewed as a “triple trifecta” since each component has at least three parts. I know that NASA is looking for seven Falcon 9 Block 5 flights, but if three could be achieved, the chances of getting to 7 are pretty good. So far, the scorecard looks like this:

1. Bring Falcon Heavy to operational status

a. (Success) 2/6/18 launch of Telsla Roadster toward Mars
b. June 2018: launch of STP-2 for the US Airforce
c. Late 2018: launch of Arabsat 6A

2. Bring Falcon 9 Block 5 to operational status

a. April 24, 2018: launch of Bangabandbhu-1 on a B5 F9
b. 2nd B5 F9 launch in 2018
c. 3rd B5 F9 launch in 2018

3. Bring Dragon 2 to operational status

a. August 2018: launch of CCtCap DM1 (no crew)
b. Sometime in 2018: CCiCap in-flight abort test
c. December 2018: launch of CCtCap DM2 (crew)

I don’t think the odds are good that SpaceX will achieve all three of these ambitious triple goals in 2018. In particular, the crewed Dragon flight is widely rumored to be slipping out of December due in large part to a lack of staff at NASA to “certify” that all the boxes have been checked. However, they are likely to achieve much of what they are aiming for, and since they are aiming so high, the “much” they achieve will be amazing.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy Test Flight Brings National Space Society’s Vision of a Return to the Moon and a Spacefaring Civilization Closer

The National Space Society (NSS) congratulates SpaceX on the first flight of the Falcon Heavy (FH). At 3:45 pm EST yesterday, the most powerful U.S. liquid-fueled rocket to fly since the Saturn V roared off Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida with 5.5-million pounds of thrust.

NSS believes that the first flight of the FH is an important step toward achieving Milestone 2: Higher Commercial Launch Rates and Lower Cost to Orbit in the NSS Space Settlement Roadmap (http://www.nss.org/settlement/roadmap/RoadmapPart2.html).

“The FH will enable concept studies like the Evolvable Lunar Architecture (see http://www.nss.org/docs/EvolvableLunarArchitecture.pdf) to become a reality, allowing the U.S.A. to return to the Moon within the current NASA budget while maintaining a balanced space program, including a gapless transition to future low Earth orbit commercial space stations and robotic exploration of the solar system,” said NSS Senior Vice President Bruce Pittman. “NSS members look forward to seeing NASA join the U.S. military in making use of the commercially competitive FH, now the most capable rocket currently flying.”

The two Falcon Heavy side boosters return to launch site. Credit: SpaceX.

Minutes into the flight the two side boosters separated from the center core and flew back to the launch site, landing nearly simultaneously. The center core of the first stage was lost while attempting to land on a downrange drone ship. The second stage ignited twice to loft to orbit a “mass simulator” consisting of Elon Musk’s red Tesla roadster driven by “Starman,” a mannequin wearing a SpaceX spacesuit.

Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster en route past Mars; actual image from hood camera in orbit. Credit: SpaceX.

Later in the evening a final burn blasted the Tesla and its driver on a path toward Mars and the asteroid belt. In addition to being really cool, this mission profile demonstrates the ability of the FH to launch large satellites directly to geosynchronous orbit after significant coasting periods. During the coast interval SpaceX released live video via the Internet of the Tesla circling the Earth.

“SpaceX achieved a lot of firsts with yesterday’s astounding flight,” said Dale Skran, NSS Executive Vice President and Chair of the NSS Policy Committee. “The FH was successfully boosted off the pad with 27 engines firing simultaneously, a new record for the U.S.A.,” he said. Additionally, Skran observed that the return to launch site of two side boosters has never been done before. But most importantly, the FH opens an era of lower launch costs that will enable a wide range of new endeavors in space, including an affordable return to the Moon.

“The reduction in launch costs that will be achieved with the FH was not just unrealized ten years ago, it was actually characterized as impossible by leading aerospace engineers,” said noted Space Solar Power expert and member of the NSS Board of Directors John Mankins. “The targeted prices that SpaceX promises with the FH — below $1,000 per pound — will be a breakthrough moment in the realization of ambitious future space business sectors such as Space Solar Power,” he said.

Congratulations to all at SpaceX who work every day to make us a multi-planetary species and creating a spacefaring civilization.

National Space Society Congratulates SpaceX and NASA on the Return to Flight Status of SLC-40 and the Launch of CRS-13

The National Space Society (NSS) congratulates SpaceX and NASA on the successful launch of Commercial Resupply Services 13 (CRS-13) Falcon 9/Dragon to the International Space Station from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 10:36 AM EST.

SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage landing at Landing Zone-1 after boosting CRS-13 toward the ISS. Credit: NASA.

Friday’s flight is SpaceX’s 17th this year, the fourth usage of a “flight proven” first stage, and the 14th first stage landing during 2017. These numbers put SpaceX in a leading position among launch providers world-wide. For example, in 2017 so far, the United Launch Alliance has lofted eight rockets and Arianespace nine. SpaceX by itself leads all Chinese launches (16) and falls just short of Russia (19).

This flight is also notable for many “firsts”:

  • 1st launch from SLC-40 since it was damaged in the Amos incident last year.
  • 1st time NASA allowed the use of a “flight proven” first stage as part of the CRS program (the first stage flown was initially used to launch CRS-11 on June 3, 2017).
  • 1st time a “flight-proven” first stage and a re-used Dragon capsule have flown together (the Dragon was initially used on CRS-6 in April and May, 2016).

“NSS members are especially excited about Made in Space’s optical fiber manufacturing facility Dragon is carrying to the ISS,” said Dale Skran, the NSS Executive Vice President and Chair of the NSS Policy Committee. “If successful in demonstrating the superiority of ZBLAN* fiber made in space, this trial run may produce the first products manufactured in space and sold on the Earth, opening a new era of orbital commerce. Research indicates that ZBLAN fiber pulled in microgravity may not crystallize as much, giving it better optical qualities that allow for more data to be sent over longer cable runs without repeaters, saving money and increasing security.”

NSS believes that in-space manufacturing as envisioned by Made in Space and NASA will be an important step toward achieving Milestone 7: Applications of Space Technology on and for Earth in the NSS Space Settlement Roadmap (http://www.nss.org/settlement/roadmap/RoadmapPart3.html).

“SpaceX has capped the year with a really impressive achievement,” said NSS Senior Vice President Bruce Pittman. “We look forward with great anticipation to the results of the fiber ZBLAN fiber cable manufacturing tests, and continuing usage of ‘flight-proven’ first stages by NASA and commercial customers. The return to operational status of SLC-40 opens the way for the first flight of the Falcon Heavy from Launch Complex 39A next month.”

New Shepard Flight Brings Sub-Orbital Tourism Closer

UPDATE: On December 19th Blue Origin announced that the December 12th flight of New Shepard was done under a new operational license from the FAA, and as a result revenue was booked on a New Shepard flight for the first time.  Blue stated that the cargo manifest for 2018 was mostly full, and that the first crewed test flight could be expected toward the end of 2018, with paying customers in late 2019.  This is a BIG DEAL.  For the first time, a company seeking to make a business out of sub-orbital tourism is taking in revenue, and the pathway to fully operational status seems clear.  More information can be found at:  http://spacenews.com/blue-origin-a-year-away-from-crewed-new-shepard-flights/.

The National Space Society (NSS) congratulates Blue Origin on the seventh New Shepard flight December 12, 2017. After reaching over 98 kilometers in height, both the booster and the capsule were successfully recovered. The upgraded capsule, targeted for crewed flights in 2018, features the largest windows ever flown in space – 2.4 feet by 3.6 feet – and carried 12 commercial, research, and educational payloads, along with a dummy “Mannequin Skywalker.” This is the first of an expected series of tests of an upgraded version of the New Shepard expected to lead to sub-orbital tourist flights in the near future. The New Shepard booster is powered by the re-usable liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen BE-3 engine.

New Shepard capsule after successful landing showing large windows with “Mannequin Skywalker” visible. Credit: Blue Origin

“Blue Origin plans to use the technology from New Shepard to build its ‘Blue Moon’ lander,” said Dale Skran, the NSS Executive Vice President and Chair of the NSS Policy Committee. “This is a great example of pioneering private-sector technology that as part of a public-private partnership could support a USA return to the Moon as called for in Space Policy Directive 1.” On December 11, 2017, President Trump signed “Space Policy Directive 1,” which called for the United States to “lead the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization” while working with “commercial and international partners.”

New Shepard booster just after landing. Credit: Blue Origin

NSS believes that sub-orbital tourism of the sort envisioned by Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic will be an important step toward achieving Milestone 2: Higher Commercial Launch Rates and Lower Cost to Orbit in the NSS Space Settlement Roadmap (http://www.nss.org/settlement/roadmap/RoadmapPart2.html).

“Blue Origin has established an impressive string of successful launches of the same New Shepard vehicle, and it’s great to see a next generation New Shepard take to the skies,” said NSS Senior Vice President Bruce Pittman. “We look forward with great anticipation to seeing crews fly on New Shepard, leading to commercial tourist flights.”

End of Year 2017 Space Development Preview

By Dale Skran
NSS Executive Vice President

The last two months of 2017 are shaping up as a very exciting time for space development. On October 30, SpaceX plans to launch Koreasat-5A from SLC-39A in Florida, followed by the unexpected secret Zuma satellite on November 15th, also from SLC-39A.  These will, if both successful be the 16th and 17th launches in 2017 by SpaceX, which is on-track to being the world’s largest space launch company in 2017. As one comparison, ULA launched six Atlas Vs and three Deltas, for a total of nine launches for 2017.

However, we are just getting started. On December 12th SpaceX is scheduled to launch CRS-13 to the ISS. This flight is important for at least three reasons. First, NASA has agreed that it will be the first NASA launch to use a “flight proven” F9 first stage. Second, the cargo will include Made in Space’s machine for manufacturing ZBLAN optical fiber in space, a step on the path to profitable space manufacturing. And third, the launch will take place from SLC-40, the first such launch since that pad was destroyed in the Amos 6 incident last year. With SLC-40 back to launching F9s, SLC-39A will be enhanced to support launches of the Falcon Heavy and Crew Dragons.

On December 22, Iridium NEXT Flight 4 will rocket into space from V-4E in Vandenberg using the fourth flight-proven F9 first stage to fly in 2017. Rounding out the SpaceX news, the Falcon Heavy is expected to fly by end of year 2017. If this occurs, it will bring the total of flights of “flight-proven” F9 first stages to six, as the two side boosters of the initial FH flight are both “flight proven.”

In other exciting news, Blue Origin recently announced the first successful firing of the Lox/Methane BE-4 engine targeted for both Vulcan and New Glenn, and in the next month or so Rocket Lab is on course for their second Electron test flight, which has a good chance of making orbit.

The next two months have the potential to be one of the most exciting periods in terms of space development related achievements ever. Ad Astra.

National Space Society Hails Two June Milestones in Space Development

The National Space Society (NSS) congratulates SpaceX on the successful June 3 launch of a re-used Dragon capsule from historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center as part of the Commercial Resupply Services 11 (CRS-11) mission to resupply the International Space Station (ISS). This was the 100th launch from LC 39A. The SpaceX Falcon 9 made history on June 3, 2017 at 5:07 p.m. EDT by lofting a “flight proven” Dragon capsule toward the ISS. SpaceX successfully returned the Falcon 9 first stage to the launch site for later re-use.

This was the first time a private company has flown a re-used orbital craft. The most significant re-used orbital spacecraft prior to the Dragon were the now retired Space Shuttle and the currently operating Air Force/Boeing X-37B space plane, but both were government owned. The Dragon capsule that rocketed through the Florida skies today previously flew as part of the CRS-4 mission in September 2014.

NSS also congratulates ViaSat on another milestone, which occurred on June 1: the successful Ariane 5 launch of communication satellite ViaSat-2 (manufactured by Boeing), launched with Eutelsat 172B from Kourou spaceport in French Guiana. “ViaSat-2 is going to be the highest-capacity satellite ever launched, with about 300 gigabits (per second) of total capacity, which is more than double what we had on ViaSat-1, which was launched less than six years ago, and more than 40 times the capacity of WildBlue 1, which was launched by Arianespace about 10 years ago,” said David Abrahamian, director of space systems at ViaSat. “So that shows you just how fast the technology is moving.”

“Both SpaceX and ViaSat are taking significant steps forward in the developing space economy,” said Dale Skran, NSS Executive Vice President. “SpaceX has previously demonstrated re-use of a flight proven first stage and attempted to recover fairings. NSS thanks NASA for its on-going support of SpaceX’s technology development program with Space Act Agreements and service contracts.”

The re-use of the Falcon 9 first stage and the Dragon capsule supports Milestone 2: Higher Commercial Launch Rates and Lower Cost to Orbit of the NSS Roadmap to Space Settlement which can be found at: http://www.nss.org/settlement/roadmap/RoadmapPart2.html. The launch of ViaSat 2 supports Milestone 7: Applications of Space Technology on and for Earth.

The Dragon capsule carried over 2,708 kgs (5,970 lbs) of cargo to the ISS. Included in the cargo manifest is the Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) that will study the physics of neutron stars. NICER will also demonstrate the use of pulsars as natural beacons to enable spacecraft navigation into deep space. Upon completion of its mission the Dragon will return to Earth loaded with the results of scientific experiments done on the ISS.

“The re-use of a Dragon capsule is yet another example of how SpaceX uses cargo flights to prove out new technologies that can be later used on crewed flights, and is a key step toward a commercial return to the Moon,” said NSS Senior Vice President Bruce Pittman.

National Space Society Hails a New Age of Reusable Rockets

The National Space Society (NSS) declares that in consideration of the achievements by SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Boeing over the past few years, it is now obvious that a revolution in spacecraft technology, operations, and economics is occurring. There is every prospect that privately owned re-usable spacecraft operating under service contracts will greatly lower the cost of reaching space.

NSS calls on Congress, the Administration, and NASA to immediately begin a review of all current NASA and other spaceflight related programs to consider how the usage of commercially available launch vehicles and spacecraft that are largely reusable can lower costs and/or increase operational capability. Suggestions to guide this review can be found in the NSS position paper “Now is the Time: A Paradigm Shift in Access to Space” (also available via: tinyurl.com/AccessToSpace).

Falcon-SES launchThe SpaceX Falcon 9 made history on March 30, 2017, at 6:27 EST by lofting the SES 10 communications satellite to geosynchronous transfer orbit using a “flight-proven” first stage. The first stage flown was initially used to launch a Dragon capsule to the International Space Station on April 8, 2016, as part of the Commercial Resupply Services program. After returning safely from space and landing on the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY), the flight proven first stage was returned to dry land, refurbished, tested, and sent back to Florida to support the re-launch on March 30th, after which it again landed successfully on OCISLY. In another historic first SpaceX attempted F9 fairing recovery using parachutes. The fairing is the enclosure for the rocket’s payload.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said, “This is ultimately going to be a huge revolution in spaceflight. It’s sort of the difference between (throwing away airplanes) after every flight vs. where you could reuse them multiple times. It’s been 15 years. It’s a long time…a lot of difficult steps along the way…incredibly proud of the SpaceX team for being able to achieve this incredible milestone in the history of space. (It’s) a great day not just for SpaceX but the space industry as a whole and proving that something can be done that many people said was impossible.”

“It is difficult to overstate the importance of SpaceX’s achievement,” said Dale Skran, NSS Executive Vice President. “SpaceX today, for the first time, demonstrated the successful re-use of an orbital first stage. Companies can only take risks on new technology with the support of customers like SES that have the courage to do new things in space. NSS congratulates SpaceX and SES on a resounding success that heralds the dawn of a new age in space, and thanks NASA for its on-going support of SpaceX’s technology development program with Space Act Agreements and service contracts.”

“Once first stage re-use is firmly established,” added Chair of the NSS Executive Committee, Mark Hopkins, “the economics of access to space will enter a new era. The re-use of first stages is a step towards Milestone 2 of the NSS Roadmap to Space Settlement which is Higher Commercial Launch Rates and Lower Cost to Orbit.”

The roadmap can be found at: www.nss.org/settlement/roadmap/RoadmapPart2.html. A great way to learn more about the connection between launch technology and the NSS Space Settlement Roadmap is to attend the NSS International Space Development Conference® (ISDC®) (isdc2017.nss.org) in St. Louis, Missouri, May 25-29, 2017.

ISDC

The ISDC’s Space Transportation track will examine all facets of space transportation from the new generation of commercial launch vehicles that through technical innovation and reusability are lowering the cost of space access to in-space transfer vehicles and deep space interplanetary propulsion systems. Many examples of reusable first stages (flyback and vertical descent boosters), reusable capsules, air launch systems, laser launch, suborbital tourism vehicles, and heavy lift boosters will be included in this track as will cis-lunar transportation elements necessary to enable cis-lunar operations and lunar exploration, and architectures that enable Mars exploration.

“The re-use of a Falcon 9 first stage paves the way for the initial flight of the Falcon Heavy later this year, and is a key step toward a commercial return to the Moon,” said NSS Senior Vice President Bruce Pittman.