USAF Cements SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Certification Path

August 26, 2017 – 10:31 am

The U.S. Air Force and launch Startup (SpaceX) have finally hammered out a road map to certification of the untested Falcon 9 Version 1.1 launch vehicle that is expected to compete to put sensitive Pentagon payloads into orbit.

This is the latest step by the Air Force to end the United Launch Alliance (ULA) monopoly on lofting such payloads. Crafted in 2006 from the competing launch businesses of and, ULA manages and operates the Atlas V and Delta IV (EELV) fleets.

Certification for the Falcon 9 V1.1 could be approved as soon as 2015, based on the requirements laid out in a June 7 cooperative research and development agreement (Crada) between the Air Force and SpaceX. This Crada specifically covers only the Falcon 9 V1.1 launch system, and does not include the also unproven Falcon Heavy.

The Air Force says it “anticipates entering into additional Cradas with SpaceX to evaluate its Falcon Heavy rocket and with [Corp.] for its Antares launch vehicle.” Both the Falcon 9 V1.1 and Falcon Heavy will rely on the new Merlin 1D engine, which has yet to fly.

SpaceX officials encountered an unexpected drop in pressure in the Merlin 1C engine during an Oct. 8, 2012, launch on the baseline Falcon 9 rocket. Though the primary payload was delivered for intact, Orbcomm lost an experimental satellite. SpaceX spokeswoman Christana Ra says the company classifies the mission as “successful” because the primary mission was achieved.

However, an investigation discovered that a breach in one of the 1C engine casings allowed an escape of hot gas and prompted a secondary breach in the direction of the main fuel line. As a result, the Falcon 9 automatically opted against an engine restart, forcing the rocket to deliver the Orbcomm satellite into an unsuitably low orbit.

“We don't consider this to be a manufacturing or design flaw, ” Ra says. “During testing, the main combustion chamber on this engine experienced a unique combination of environments compared to the other engines. While none of these observations exceeded demonstrated qualification margins, the combination of these environments likely exacerbated the material flaw in the engine's jacket.”

Ra says SpaceX is “not concerned about having the same issue, ” on the 1D engine, which undergoes a different production process.

The first Falcon 9 V1.1 mission to boost Canada's small, experimental Cassiope payload, built by MDA Corp., has been repeatedly delayed and is set to be followed this year by launch of an SES payload, Ra says. According to the company's manifest, six V1.1 rockets are set for delivery by year-end, an ambitious goal. Cassiope will be the first to launch from SpaceX's new pad at Vandenberg AFB, Calif. Ra says the pad is “in good shape . . . . Vandenberg is basically ready for launch.”

The certification process was implemented in 2011 to allow for competition from contractors seeking to enter the market. “While certification does not guarantee a contract award, it does enable a company to compete for launch contracts, ” says the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), which oversees procurement of satellites and boosters for the Air Force.


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    • When you are close to the ground press LT to make yourself go up it slows down the fall and makes for an easier landing.