SpaceX's Gwynne Shotwell Talks Raptor, Falcon 9, CRS-2, Satellite Internet and More

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SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell was at the Satellite 2015 show in Washington last week, where during a lunch address she touched on several developments underway at the Hawthorne, California-based company. During the conference—one of two annual international events where Shotwell engages in audience Q&As—she talked about the evolution of the Dragon cargo/crew vessel, enhancements to the Falcon 9 v1.1, the debut of the Falcon Heavy, the status of a new venture to build small satellites for global internet service, and progress on the LOX/methane Raptor engine, among other topics.

 

► Launch Slip for Turkmenistan

Shotwell says an issue with helium tanks on the Falcon 9 v1.1 has prompted SpaceX to delay a March 21 commercial mission for the government of Turkmenistan. The company now hopes to launch Turkmensat-1 and an International Space Station (ISS) cargo resupply mission for NASA before April 17. “We were doing some component stress testing over the weekend and were a little uncomfortable with the helium bottle pressure onboard. It passed inspection, but now is not the time to have an issue in flight, so we're going to go in and do some work on those bottles, so that will delay the flight."

 

► Pad Abort Delay

The slip of Turkmenistan's first satellite launch means a March pad abort test of the Dragon capsule under NASA's commercial crew development program is now TBD. “I was going to do it after my Thales and NASA (cargo resupply) missions. Given the recent delays, I'm not quite sure. I think it will be ready to go in just a couple weeks. It's going to be a matter of what we put where and when on the pad. They're all three going from (SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral AFS).”

 

► Flying Military Missions

The U.S. Air Force has been working to certify the Falcon 9 v1.0, and later the Falcon 9 v1.1, since mid-2013, though Shotwell says things didn't get underway in earnest until March or April last year. Although the process has been delayed, she expects the rocket to be approved for medium-class military payload launches by mid-year, if not before. “We’ve definitely turned a corner. We’ve been working really well with [the Air Force] since we hit certification hard, which really started last March or April. So we’ve only been at it a year. “Generals [Ellen] Pawlikowski and [Samuel] Greaves have really pushed their teams hard to try to make them aware of how alternate ways of doing business are okay. Just because we do things differently doesn’t mean we don’t do them well, especially given the successes we’ve had to date. So the Air Force has been working really hard. It’s going really well and I anticipate being certified very shortly.”

 

► New Spin on Falcon 9

Shotwell was asked about an upgrade to the Falcon 9 v1.1 that will increase the rocket's performance with optimized Merlin 1D engines and other enhancements. She said SpaceX will conduct four more launches on the existing rocket (Turkmenistan, two ISS resupply and the Jason-3 ocean altimetry satellite) before the upgrade debuts this summer with the launch of a commercial communications satellite for Luxembourg fleet operator SES. “In order to launch and get operational with the current Falcon 9 that we're flying, the v1.1, we needed to draw a line on engine development. But what we did see during the development of our Merlin engines ... was that there was more performance to go get, but we fundamentally ran out of time. We needed to get this vehicle to the pad and fly and make our customer commitments. So what we've done is we've gone back, got that extra performance from those engines, and we're going to place them on the new vehicle, the new spin. I don't know what we're going to call it. Enhanced Falcon 9, Falcon 9 v1.2, Full-Performance Falcon 9. So, we got the higher thrust engines, finished development on that, we're in qual. What we're also doing is modifying the structure a little bit. I want to be building only two versions, or two cores in my factory, any more than that would not be great from a customer perspective. It's about a 30% increase in performance, maybe a little more. What it does is it allows us to land the first stage for GTO missions on the drone ship.”

 

► Falcon Heavy Debut

If and when SpaceX successfully conducts a flight test of its Falcon Heavy rocket, it will be the largest launch vehicle to fly since the Saturn 5. Shotwell says the Falcon Heavy could debut later this year from the Cape, though given the company's jam-packed launch manifest, it is unclear when the mission will take place. “I don't know. We really want to fly this year. The pad will be ready for it by September or October this year. We'll get it launched as quick as we can. We don't really have customer launches til mid-next year, 2016. So we're still working off margin.”

 

► Revised Design for Falcon Heavy

Shotwell said the Falcon Heavy will comprise three Falcon 9 core stages, though the central stage will be more robust than the boosters on either side. “Falcon Heavy is two different cores, the inner core and then the two side boosters, and the new single stick Falcon 9 will basically be a Falcon Heavy side booster. So, we're building two types of cores and that's to make sure we don't have a bunch of different configurations of the vehicle around the factory. I think it will streamline operations and really allow us to hit a cadence of one or two a month at every launch site we have.”

 

► Falcon Heavy Reuse

As SpaceX makes progress on its effort to return Falcon 9 core stages to an automated drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean, Shotwell said SpaceX may try to recover the heavier inner core of the new heavy-lift rocket on the barge, but land the boosters at the U.S. Air Force's Eastern Range facility at the Cape. “I think we would try to recover the single core on the drone ship and the two others back at the launch site. I'm not exactly sure, actually.”

 

► Safety First

Shotwell says the U.S. Air Force's Eastern Range wants to see the company successfully land a Falcon 9 core stage on the drone ship before alighting on land at the Cape. “It's not really an FAA activity, it's more a range-safety activity. We basically have to get clearance through the range. I think the Eastern Range wants to see us land on the drone ship first. But they have their finger on the button. If you think about the decision making before you blow up a vehicle for safety reasons, on ascent it's a harder decision: You've got a payload onboard, someone's bird is not getting to orbit if you press the 'destruct' button. If you hit 'destruct' on my incoming stage, it's an experiment at this point anyhow, it doesn't have a ton of fuel on it, it's probably going to hit a barge.”

 

► Raptor in Test

In the meantime, SpaceX is working on a new LOX/methane engine that will power the company's Mars rocket (also known as the “BFR”) at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Hancock Country, Mississippi. “We call it Raptor, it will be the engine that should take folks to Mars, that's the plan. The vehicle architecture to do that is a little bit in flux. So the engine performance is in flux. But it'll be a big engine. I don't have the final specs on that engine, we're in development, we're testing injectors right now at Stennis and working on a capability to test in Texas as well. It'll be a very different rocket, the densities are different and the diameters are going to change.

 

► Money on Mars

Shotwell said SpaceX sees the commercial potential of ferrying humans to and from the Red Planet with the BFR. There is a surprising number of people that want to leave Earth. So we believe there is a commercial market for that vehicle.”

 

► Internet for All

SpaceX officials have had little to say about founder Elon Musk's plan to build a satellite factory in Seattle to pump out thousands of low-Earth-orbiting spacecraft to flood the planet with internet. Start-ups OneWeb and LeoSat discussed their plans for rival constellations during the conference, but Shotwell downplayed expectations for SpaceX's LEO network. “People are asking about the satellite venture, and I don't have a ton to say about it. We are interested in the satellite market opportunity for global internet, we are very much in the exploration phase right now but do have a team of folks working on it. If I knew a lot more I would say a lot more. It's very early stages.”

 

► $1 billion to Build Satellites?

Shotwell clarified the intent of a recent $1-billion combined investment in SpaceX by Google and Fidelity Investments. “Google and Fidelity invested in SpaceX kind of for their own business purposes, not for the global internet project we're exploring right now. But we are looking at it, seems to be a huge amount of interest in the non-geo arena right now. And we felt like we should explore this market as well.”

 

► Launching From the Lone Star State

SpaceX will lift mostly commercial missions to GTO from its new launch site under construction in Brownsville, Texas, Shotwell says. “It's really a great location. The Cape is at 28.5 deg. latitude. Brownsville is at 26, so you get a little extra boost there.”

 

► Adding to CRS-1

NASA has added missions to its CRS-1 cargo resupply agreements with SpaceX and rival Orbital ATK, a move Shotwell says will fill a gap between the original cargo contracts and a follow-on CRS-2 award expected this year. News of the extra flights follows an announcement in 2014 that NASA would give the companies an extra year to execute their fixed-price contracts, which initially called for delivering 20,000 kg of cargo each to the ISS by the end of 2015. However, it is unclear whether the extra flights (SpaceX had planned 12, Orbital 8) will increase the amount of food, water and supplies to be delivered beyond the 20,000 kg, or whether the value of the respective $1.6 billion and $1.9 billion agreements will grow as a result. “The extension adds flights, and I think it was necessary given the gap between the current cargo resupply contract and the follow-on. New flights were added to the contract.”

 

► A Shout-Out to NASA

Under the terms of its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement with NASA, SpaceX was to develop an “end-to-end space transportation system” that would utilize the ISS as a test-bed, though Shotwell says the U.S. space agency's financial contribution helped pay for design and build of the Dragon spacecraft only. “Under that program we developed Falcon 9 on our own, and NASA supported the Dragon build, and of course it resulted in 16 for 16 successes and six missions to the ISS. I always do a shout-out to NASA on this, as well as to the strength of public-private partnerships. NASA contributed $396 million to a program that really in the end was well over $1 billion.

 

► The Short-Lived Falcon 1

With development of the Falcon 1, SpaceX thought it could get the light launcher to orbit on private capital alone. After three failed attempts, Falcon 1 reached orbit in September 2008, but Shotwell says SpaceX shelved it in 2012 due to lack of market demand for small satellites. “If you define a market as need and desire paired with cash, there was very little market for Falcon 1, so we transferred our sights to Falcon 9.”

 

► Taming the Dragon

SpaceX's Dragon capsule debuted in December 2010, orbiting the Earth before splashing as planned in the Pacific Ocean. But it was more than a year before Dragon would fly again, a gap in the company's required COTS milestones that required an additional $128 million investment from NASA in development of the vehicle. “2011 was tough. We did not launch, we were upgrading the Dragon spacecraft to actually berth with the ISS. In 2012 we did that, we berthed with the ISS, exchanged some cargo and brought some cargo home. That flight and berthing was by far the most stressful minutes or hours of my career at SpaceX.”

 

► Dragon Version 2

Shotwell says SpaceX is upgrading the Dragon vehicle for both cargo and eventually crewed missions to ISS. “We are working fast and furious on an upgraded version of Dragon to take cargo as well as crew to the ISS. The demo will be uncrewed in late 2016 and the first crewed will be in early 2017.”

 

 

 

 

Discuss this Blog Entry 6

on Mar 22, 2015

Great summary. I'm not sure I had seen all of those comments before, so it was very informative.

A couple of observations:

Falcon Heavy. It's been obvious that the schedule for Falcon Heavy has not been a line in the sand, and Shotwell's comment pretty much sums up why. She said:

"We don't really have customer launches til mid-next year, 2016. So we're still working off margin.”

Falcon 9 v1.1 and the upcoming v1.2 have customers waiting for them, as well as the NASA CRS contract and the CCiCap & CCtCap contracts. Add on top of that work on building one new pads and upgrading a two others (39A & VAFB), and that's a lot of priorities. So it's no wonder that Falcon Heavy is OK to keep pushing out.

Falcon 9 v1.2. Shotwell provided great insight into how SpaceX thinks regarding upgrades, and you can see that they do keep a very sharp focus on their customers. Even this helium bottle issue shows that, yes they haven't nailed down this design quite yet (this is not the first time it's been an issue), but that they don't feel rushed to launch.

Shotwell also mentioned recently that the vast majority of their employees were not around during the time of their Falcon 1 launch failures, and that they spend time as a company making sure that new employees understand what those times were like. That failure can come from the smallest things, like a corroded nut on an engine.

So while SpaceX has a lot on their plate, they seem to be pretty level headed about their priorities, so it will be interesting watching them move forward.

on Mar 22, 2015

Great observations, thank you. And thanks for mentioning the work SpaceX does with employees to appreciate the potential for failure. I saw it in another pub, but I was seated at a chatty table and my tape didn't clearly pick up that part. Impressive, in any case.

On Falcon Heavy, one of their customers suggested they might bail on it in favor of going straight to the BFR.

On pad abort - I think they have until mid-May to get it done before having to refile the STA. They definitely have a lot going on.

on Mar 22, 2015

Your comment about the BFR is the first I've heard there might be an external customer for it - outside of Musk's Mars goal.

If you have any more info on that, I think that would be worthy of an article by itself.

on Mar 23, 2015

This article cleared up a couple questions I had -- 1} SpaceX will be discontinuing the Dragon 1 in favor of the Dragon 2 (this was something I expected), and 2} the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) or Mars Colony Transport (MCT) will be for sale (which I expected).

I think the future of humanity in space is looking pretty good. Musk has gone on record saying that Spacex's most pessimistic timeline has them putting humans on Mars in 2029. That will NOT be (unless I badly miss my guess) a flags & footprints mission; it will be to lay the groundwork for Musk's much-dreamed-of colony. Allowing 20 years for schedule slip, development, & etc gives us a Mars colony worthy of the name before 2050.

But with the MCT for sale -- and (I am assuming) cheaper per pound than the FH -- folks who want to set up an orbiting space habitat (maybe at L5) will find the MCT can move a heck of a lot more than 100t or 100 people. We'll almost certainly have a space habitat before the Mars colony. The first habitat will make money on ISRU prospecting, null-G research, and in-space manufacturing. One very lucrative item to manufacture? Real estate in another (under construction) space habitat -- so the number of habitats we have will be logarithmic with respect to time.

It isn't (in my not-so-humble opinion) too unrealistic to expect comfortable, populous habitats throughout (I figure out at least as far as Saturn) the solar system by 2100. That's a future I can live with.

Now humanity just needs to refrain from being a bunch of self-destructive psychopaths. I am hopeful, even if history isn't really on our side on this one.

on Mar 23, 2015

The comments continue to confuse the specifications of the Raptor engine. President Shotwell indicated that the specifications on the Raptor were still in flux, but Elon Musk was fairly specific in his 1/5/2015 Reddit "Ask Me Anything" answers.

Elon Musk’ comments on Reddit Ask Me Anything: 1/5/2015

Q. Has the Raptor engine changed in its target thrust since the last number we have officially heard of 1.55Mlbf SL thrust?

Elon Musk: Thrust to weight is optimizing for a surprisingly low thrust level, even when accounting for the added mass of plumbing and structure for many engines. Looks like a little over 230 metric tons (~500 klbf) of thrust per engine, but we will have a lot of them :)

… MCT will have meaningfully higher specific impulse engines: 380 vs 345 vac Isp. For those unfamiliar, in the rocket world, that is a super gigantic difference for stages of roughly equivalent mass ratio (mass full to mass empty).

… Default plan is to have a sea level and vacuum version of Raptor, much like Merlin. Since the booster and spaceship will both have multiple engines, we don’t have to have fundamentally different designs.

This plan might change.

Q. In order to use the full MCT design (100 passengers), will BFR be one core or 3 cores?

Elon Musk: At first, I was thinking we would just scale up Falcon Heavy, but it looks like it probably makes more sense just to have a single monster boost stage.

on Apr 24, 2015

Great article Amy full of information I did not realize had been released by SpaceX. Thanks.

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