WASHINGTON — After almost three years of waiting — and six successful cargo flights to the International Space Station — SpaceX’s Falcon 9 should finally win approval to loft NASA science satellites this year, NASA’s lead launch services buyer said.
SpaceX has been working toward NASA certification since it won an $82 million contract in 2012 to launch the French-U.S. Jason-3 ocean altimetry satellite aboard a Falcon 9. The rocket is getting closer to clinching NASA’s formal seal of approval, but “has not yet achieved NASA certification, ” said Jim Norman, director of launch services at NASA Headquarters here.
NASA rocket certification consists of three tiers, called categories, that determine which NASA payloads a rocket is cleared to launch. The lowest is Category 1; the highest is Category 3. The higher a rocket’s rating, the more valuable the payloads NASA will entrust to it. Rockets that have never flown must normally start at Category 1 and work their way up the certification ladder with successful launches.
“For over a decade NASA has relied on using propulsion system changes as the most significant factor in declaring a unique configuration that requires certification.”
Falcon 9, Norman said, is skipping Category 1 and proceeding straight to Category 2, thanks to a combination of commercial bookings and ISS missions paid for under a 2008 Commercial Resupply Services contract that, legally speaking, certified SpaceX for cargo deliveries, not rocket launches.
SpaceX’s launch of the Deep Space Climate Observatory on Feb. 11 did not need NASA certification because the million launch was paid for by the Air Force, which is in the midst of certifying Falcon 9 for high-value military launches. The roughly 0 million satellite, originally built by NASA for Earth observations, sat in a hangar for more than a decade before the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration adopted it and turned it into a space weather satellite.
Category 2 certification calls for at least one successful mission and possibly as many as six. The current Falcon 9 configuration, which was introduced in September 2013 following five launches powered by the since-retired Merlin 1C engine, has flown 10 times. But SpaceX still needs NASA to formally sign off on the success of those launches and the rocket’s design before certification is finalized.
None of that has happened yet, but Norman said sign-off is on track to happen before late May or early June, when the Jason-3 satellite is scheduled for launch.
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