Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) is at least two years from flying rockets from its Brownsville, Texas, launch site due to soil instability, according to a key company official.
NASA President Gwynne Shotwell said Feb. 3 the company has to build a giant concrete mountain leading up to its Brownsville launch pad, much like the one at Launch Complex 39A at NASA Kennedy Space Center, Fla. She said SpaceX will have to repeat a process of bringing in dirt and packing it to prepare for the concrete mountain. Shotwell also said the Brownsville launch site, which SpaceX believes will help ease congestion at its east coast launch site, is costing more money than it originally planned.
SpaceX is upgrading its east coast launch sites. After successfully performing NASA’s Jason-3 mission in January, Shotwell said SpaceX is now upgrading the pad and infrastructure at Launch Complex 40, also at KSC, to host full thrust rockets. She said SpaceX will be performing additional work at Launch Complex 39A to host Commercial Crew, though she didn’t provide details.
Shotwell said SpaceX is expanding its Hawthorne, Calif., rocket engine factory to produce a rate of 30 rocket cores by the end of 2016. She said the factory is currently at a rate of 18 cores per year and will go from three integration lanes to eventually six to help it reach that 30 cores per year rate goal. Shotwell also said SpaceX is doubling its fairing capacity while also focusing on automation and production of its Merlin engine, which it wants to build at a rate of between 400 and 500 in a single year.
Speaking at the 19th Annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington, Shotwell said SpaceX will fly its Falcon Heavy rocket later in 2016. She said the landing process for Falcon Heavy will be similar to the one for Falcon 9 and that Falcon Heavy will drive “all sorts” of technology requirements at the range, including autonomous flight safety tracking. Shotwell said SpaceX will demonstrate autonomous tracking on upcoming Falcon 9 flights.
Shotwell said the Falcon 9 that tipped over and exploded after landing on its autonomous floating drone ship in January was not the upgraded version of Falcon 9. Though the rocket “stuck” the landing right on target, Shotwell attributed the rocket tipping over to the landing legs not being as “robust” as necessary. She said the landing leg design was from a previous design era.
Though Shotwell said SpaceX has been recovering its Dragon capsule for some time, it hopes to fly a recovered Dragon later this year. She said the version of Dragon the company is currently flying to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of NASA’s Cargo Resupply Services (CRS) program is more difficult to refurbish than the Commercial Crew version it is developing.
SpaceX passed its critical design review (CDR) milestone for Commercial Crew late last year, Shotwell said, and also qualified its docking adapter. She said the company also performed hover tests on Dragon and expects to perform an in-flight abort test this year, a critical milestone on the way to delivering humans to ISS. Shotwell said following the in-flight abort test, SpaceX will perform a fully-autonomous mission to ISS, without crew, before performing a demonstration launch with humans. SpaceX, she said, plans for its first operational Commercial Crew mission in 2017.