Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) continues to work toward U.S. Air Force and NASA certification of its Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket to launch sensitive government missions, and company president Gwynne Shotwell says she expects the Air Force to certify the vehicle by midyear “if not sooner” to fly midsized national security payloads.

Both agencies have been running parallel efforts to approve the Falcon 9 for lifting higher-risk missions than the cargo resupply runs that SpaceX has been launching for NASA

The Air Force started its certification work in summer 2013, but approval has been delayed multiple times. NASA, meanwhile, has been working toward its own “Category 2” launch vehicle certification for medium-risk missions since July 2012, but has had to redo much of that work since SpaceX introduced a new, more powerful version of the baseline Falcon 9 v1.0 in late 2013.

This year, SpaceX expects to debut another Falcon 9 upgrade, one that will see at least a 15% increase in thrust for the Falcon 9’s nine Merlin 1D core-stage engines and a 10% increase in the upper stage tank volume. NASA has said such an increase in thrust is likely to require significant design modifications to the engine and rocket, which could necessitate additional certification work, including a series of successful flights to prove the vehicle.

But Shotwell says going forward, Falcon 9 upgrades should be easier for the government to certify.

“Though certification might be an iterative process, it becomes quicker and quicker to certify vehicle changes,” she said.
Meanwhile, in its quest to develop reusable rockets, SpaceX hopes to convince customers that refurbished versions of its Falcon 9 v1.1 are no different than those coming off the company’s Hawthorne, California, production line.

“We’re never going to shove a technology down any of our customers’ throats,” Shotwell said in an interview on the sidelines of the Satellite 2015 show in Washington March 16. “What we’re planning on doing is flying them sufficiently such that even the most conservative customers look at that and say it’s no different from any other. And we have a lot of work to do in order to do that.”
Shotwell said the company has been discussing reusable rocket and spaceship technology with NASA, and how it might support the space agency’s future missions.

“We’re talking to NASA about reusability all the time; we’re reusing some components right now for cargo,” she said, referring to SpaceX’s $1.6 billion fixed-price contract to deliver 20,000 kg (44,000 lb.) of food and supplies to the International Space Station using Falcon 9 and the company’s Dragon cargo vessel.

Shotwell says SpaceX intends to see NASA flying a fully reusable Dragon vessel “within a few years,” and that while NASA is not opposed to flying cargo and spacecraft on refurbished vehicles, the federal acquisition process lacks the flexibility needed to facilitate such innovation.

“We couldn’t bid it initially because it was a FAR [Federal Acquisition Regulation] contract and you had to know what you were going to do, and we didn’t know what it would take to refurbish and reuse a Dragon,” she said. “We’ll continue to work with NASA and it’s in our plan to do that.”

Shotwell also said future evolutions of Dragon will be easier to reuse.

“With Version 2 it is much easier to talk about reusability,” she said. “Eventually we want to land on land, and so you don’t have the issue of landing the capsule in the water and figuring out how to make it work after that.”

She said SpaceX expects to demo an uncrewed version of the new Dragon cargo/crew capsule in late 2016, with a crewed test expected in early 2017.

In the meantime, SpaceX is busy this year executing a jam-packed manifest of commercial and institutional missions. These include the launch of a Thales Alenia Space-built telecommunications satellite for the government of Turkmenistan initially scheduled for March 21 but delayed owing to a helium issue, Shotwell said March 17.

"We were doing some component stress testing over the weekend and were a little uncomfortable with the helium bottle pressure onboard," she said. "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."

Shotwell said a Dragon pad abort test is likely to slip from April until later in the year to make way for two NASA cargo missions, the first of which is expected to launch before April 17, she said, with a second slated for June. Both missions will see the company return the Falcon 9 core stage to attempt a controlled landing on the SpaceX drone ship, an autonomous barge floating in the Atlantic Ocean off the Cape.

SpaceX also plans to launch the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration’s Jason-3 ocean altimetry mission in July, assuming the company achieves NASA Category 2 certification for the Earth observation mission by then.

The debut of the upgraded Falcon 9 v1.1 is also expected this summer, she said, adding that commercial fleet operator SES of Luxembourg “wanted to be the first” to fly on the rocket, after initially showing reluctance to lift its SES-9 spacecraft to geostationary orbit on an improved Merlin 1D engine.

Shotwell said the company also plans to launch a final tranche of Orbcomm machine-to-machine communications satellites this year, two additional NASA cargo resupply runs and the debut of the company’s Falcon Heavy launcher.

“We’ve got a lot going on,” she said.