Status Report

SpaceX Update: Falcon 9 Flight 1

By SpaceRef Editor
June 16, 2009
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SpaceX Update: Falcon 9 Flight 1

First Stage Engines

Engine testing for the inaugural Falcon 9 flight proceeds at a rapid pace with no major problems or concerns. Six of the nine first stage flight engines have completed acceptance testing and all nine flight engines are on schedule to complete acceptance testing by mid July.

Merlin 1C first stage engine firing on the stand at our Texas testing facility.

Second Stage Engines

Our Merlin Vacuum engine (MVac), which powers the Falcon 9 second stage, entered development with a skirt temperature too hot for flight, but we have since tuned down the engine and brought the nozzle temperature within flight specifications. The MVac will complete development by month’s end, with qualification testing to follow in July.

Merlin Vacuum (MVac) engine firing on the test stand in Texas. Like the smaller engine on our Falcon 1 second stage, during flight the MVac engine will also have a large radiatively cooled expansion nozzle to increase its performance in the vacuum of space.

Launch Operations

A key objective of taking Falcon 9 vertical at the Cape earlier this year was to validate ground systems interfaces and operations with the vehicle in its final flight configuration, prior to executing the launch campaign.

First Falcon 9 vehicle at Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 40, former launch site of the Titan IV rocket.

The successful operation allowed us to validate several key interfaces and operations including:

  • Mechanical functionality of the erector and its physical fit with the vehicle
  • Integration tooling interfaces and function
  • Ground system control interfaces
  • Environments testing
  • Hydraulic systems testing
  • Logistics, shipping and equipment handling
  • Vehicle integration/mating operations (fairing, stages, erector)
  • Vehicle lifting operations
  • Launch mount operations

Since that time, our RP-1 system has become operational, the cryogenic liquid oxygen handling system is nearing completion, and we have completed construction of our horizontal vehicle integration hangar. The Transporter Erector is getting reassembled into flight configuration and will be back into system level testing in mid July.

Exterior view of the vehicle integration building, located to the south of the launch pad.

Interior of the vehicle integration building showing the massive overhead crane system, each with a 20 ton lifting capacity.

Our 125,000 gallon liquid oxygen storage sphere (shown below) and supporting pumping station are nearing completion and will undergo cryo shock testing in early July. Next up for completion at the launch site will be auxiliary systems like TEA-TEB handling, spin start support systems, engine purge and launch pad water deluge systems, and helium chill systems.


In preparation for the inaugural Falcon 9 flight, our Structures team is hard at work with qualification of the Falcon 9 primary structures. The Falcon 9 first stage with interstage is currently loaded in the structural qualification stand at our Texas facility. Qualification testing is expected to be complete by month’s end and we expect to have fully qualified first and second flight stages at SLC-40 by end of summer.

Falcon 9 first stage and interstage (right) on the structural test stand in Texas. To the left is the our largest test stand, used last November for our successful nine engine mission duration test firing.

The Falcon 9 truss and skirt assembly is complete and loaded in the structural test stand at our headquarters in Hawthorne, California. System checks begin today and proceed into qualification loading later this week. The entire test series will take about 3 weeks to complete.

Pending installation of the transfer tube, our Falcon 9 Flight 1 first stage tank will be completed this week, travel to Texas for proof and leak testing, and then move on to integration. Second stage tank build progress continues with secondary structure installations, and the Falcon 9 fairing build continues as well, with final assembly to start in approximately three to four weeks.

Progress continues on the hardware for Flight 2 of Falcon 9, which will feature our first demonstration flight under the COTS program of the Dragon spacecraft. The friction stir weld process is nearly complete for the second stage tank and the Falcon 9 interstage is in final assembly. In addition, skirt panels are complete through the layup process and ready for assembly integration.


Development of the avionics suite for Falcon 9 and Dragon is nearing completion, with key units in final qualification testing and others in production. Units already in production include:

  • Remote Input/Output modules for Merlin engine control
  • 10 Mbit/sec network switching nodes for Falcon 9 and Dragon
  • High-energy-density Lithium-polymer batteries

SpaceX-developed CUCU (COTS Ultra high frequency Communication Unit) radio transceiver undergoing testing in Avionics’ EMI (electromagnetic interference) test chamber.

In addition, the COTS UHF Communications Unit (CUCU), a dual-redundant digital communications link for Dragon and the ISS, has passed qualification testing and four units are in production. CUCU units on Dragon and the ISS will provide radio communication between the two space vehicles during final approach and berthing of Dragon. The first CUCU production unit is scheduled to be transported by NASA to the ISS aboard the Space Shuttle in late 2009.

SpaceRef staff editor.