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 (

“The FH will enable concept studies like the Evolvable Lunar Architecture (see 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.

Sierra Nevada Corporation Developing Dream Chaser Version for Stratolaunch

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) has announced a design for an integrated system for human spaceflight that can be launched to low Earth orbit (LEO) using Stratolaunch System’s air launch architecture and a scale version of SNC’s Dream Chaser spacecraft.

The Dream Chaser is a reusable, lifting-body spacecraft capable of crewed or autonomous flight. Dream Chaser is the only lifting-body spacecraft capable of a runway landing, anywhere in the world. Stratolaunch Systems is a Paul G. Allen project dedicated to developing an air-launch system that will revolutionize space transportation by providing orbital access to space at lower costs, with greater safety and more flexibility.

As designed, the Dream Chaser-Stratolauncher human spaceflight system can carry a crew of three astronauts to LEO destinations. This versatile system can also be tailored for un-crewed space missions, including science missions, light cargo transportation or suborbital point-to-point transportation. The scaled crewed spacecraft design is based on SNC’s full-scale Dream Chaser vehicle which, for the past four years, has undergone development and flight tests as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Chuck Beames, president, Vulcan Aerospace Corp and executive director for Stratolaunch Systems said, “Combining a scaled version of SNC’s Dream Chaser with the Stratolaunch air launch system could provide a highly responsive capability with the potential to reach a variety of LEO destinations and return astronauts or payloads to a U.S. runway within 24 hours.”

“This relationship would expand our portfolio to include the highly flexible Stratolaunch system for launching reusable crewed or uncrewed spacecraft, or for rapid satellite constellation deployment,” said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of SNC’s Space Systems.

In addition to supporting development of human spaceflight capability, SNC studied satellite launch options and mechanisms, as well as point-to-point transportation options using the Stratolaunch launch system with a Dream Chaser spacecraft derivative. The Stratolaunch system is uniquely designed to allow for maximum operational flexibility and payload delivery from several possible operational sites, while minimizing mission constraints such as range availability and weather.

SpaceX Announces Progress on Reusable Rocket

SpaceX released the following statement July 23:

Following last week’s successful launch of six ORBCOMM satellites, the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage reentered Earth’s atmosphere and soft landed in the Atlantic Ocean. This test confirms that the Falcon 9 booster is able to consistently reenter from space at hypersonic velocity, restart main engines twice, deploy landing legs and touch down at near zero velocity.

After landing, the vehicle tipped sideways as planned to its final water safing state in a nearly horizontal position. The water impact caused loss of hull integrity, but we received all the necessary data to achieve a successful landing on a future flight. Going forward, we are taking steps to minimize the build up of ice and spots on the camera housing in order to gather improved video on future launches.

At this point, we are highly confident of being able to land successfully on a floating launch pad or back at the launch site and refly the rocket with no required refurbishment. However, our next couple launches are for very high velocity geostationary satellite missions, which don’t allow enough residual propellant for landing. In the longer term, missions like that will fly on Falcon Heavy, but until then Falcon 9 will need to fly in expendable mode.

We will attempt our next water landing on flight 13 of Falcon 9, but with a low probability of success. Flights 14 and 15 will attempt to land on a solid surface with an improved probability of success.

SpaceX Completes Qualification Testing of SuperDraco Thruster for Launch Escape System on Dragon Spacecraft

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) announced that it has completed qualification testing for the SuperDraco thruster, an engine that will power the Dragon spacecraft’s launch escape system and enable the vehicle to land propulsively on Earth or another planet with pinpoint accuracy.

The qualification testing program took place over the last month at SpaceX’s Rocket Development Facility in McGregor, Texas. The program included testing across a variety of conditions including multiple starts, extended firing durations and extreme off-nominal propellant flow and temperatures.

The SuperDraco is an advanced version of the Draco engines currently used by SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft to maneuver in orbit and during re-entry. SuperDracos will be used on the crew version of the Dragon spacecraft as part of the vehicle’s launch escape system; they will also enable propulsive landing on land.  Each SuperDraco produces 16,000 pounds of thrust and can be restarted multiple times if necessary.  In addition, the engines have the ability to deep throttle, providing astronauts with precise control and enormous power.

The SuperDraco engine chamber is manufactured using state-of-the-art direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), otherwise known as 3D printing.  The chamber is regeneratively cooled and printed in Inconel, a high-performance superalloy that offers both high strength and toughness for increased reliability.

“Through 3D printing, robust and high-performing engine parts can be created at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional manufacturing methods,” said Elon Musk, Chief Designer and CEO.  “SpaceX is pushing the boundaries of what additive manufacturing can do in the 21st century, ultimately making our vehicles more efficient, reliable and robust than ever before.”

Unlike previous launch escape systems that were jettisoned after the first few minutes of launch, SpaceX’s launch system is integrated into the Dragon spacecraft.  Eight SuperDraco engines built into the side walls of the Dragon spacecraft will produce up to 120,000 pounds of axial thrust to carry astronauts to safety should an emergency occur during launch.

As a result, Dragon will be able to provide astronauts with the unprecedented ability to escape from danger at any point during the ascent trajectory, not just in the first few minutes.  In addition, the eight SuperDracos provide redundancy, so that even if one engine fails an escape can still be carried out successfully.

The first flight demonstration of the SuperDraco will be part of the upcoming pad abort test under NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capabilities (CCiCap) initiative. The pad abort will be the first test of SpaceX’s new launch escape system and is currently expected to take place later this year.

National Space Society Congratulates SpaceX on the Success of CRS-3 and the First Flight of the Falcon 9R

The Washington DC-based National Space Society (NSS) congratulates SpaceX on the successful launch of Commercial Resupply Services 3 (CRS-3) from Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) to the International Space Station (ISS) on April 18th at 3:25 pm EDT.  NSS Executive Senior Operating Officer Bruce Pittman said, “The successful reusability tests of the Falcon 9 v1.1 during the CRS-3 mission are a vital step on the path to dramatically reducing the cost of access to space.”

The National Space Society will present two special awards to SpaceX at their 2014 International Space Development Conference (ISDC).  Elon Musk, SpaceX Chief Designer and CTO, will accept the Robert A Heinlein Memorial Award.  Gwynne R. Shotwell, SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer, will accept the Space Pioneer Award for the Entrepreneurial Business category.

The Dragon capsule berthed with the ISS at 9:06 AM EDT Sunday April 20th.  This is the first flight of the upgraded Falcon 9 v1.1 to the ISS, and the fourth overall flight of the v1.1 version.  In addition to carrying a record up mass (cargo) to the ISS, the Falcon 9 v1.1 demonstrated for the first time the unfolding of the landing legs on the first stage.   CRS-3 was part of a series of tests of reusable spacecraft technology that are planned to eventually lead to the full re-use of the Falcon 9.   If this occurs, it will drive a revolution in access to space via lowering launch costs.

The Dragon capsule pressurized area carried a record of one GLACIER and two MERLIN freezers for transporting experiment samples, a replacement Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU), or in everyday English, a spacesuit, plus additional supplies of food, water, and personal items.  The unpressurized Dragon trunk contained the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS) and the High Definition Earth Viewing (HDEV) package made up of four commercial HD cameras.  Dragon also brought VEG-01, a plant growth chamber to the ISS, where it will be used for experimental food production.

As expected for this early test flight, SpaceX did not recover the first stage, which “soft landed” in the ocean.  At this time it appears that CRS-3 met SpaceX’s reusability milestones, including first stage re-ignition to slow the first stage on its return.  Reusability tests of the Falcon 9 will continue throughout 2014, with a target of full first stage reuse by the end of 2014 or early 2015.

On Thursday April 17th the SpaceX Falcon 9R flew for the first time from McGregor, Texas, to a height of 250 m [VIDEO BELOW].  The Falcon 9R is a 3-engine successor to the single-engine “Grasshopper” and will continue the development of reusable SpaceX rocket technology.  Later this summer the Falcon 9R will move to Spaceport America in New Mexico for high-altitude test flights.