Wednesday, August 7, 2013

SpaceX timetable

After many months of not posting on this blog, I've decided to come back and give it another go. One of the first things I noticed on coming back was that the blog was receiving a regular stream of page views. A closer look at the page statistics showed that one post in particular was pulling in the crowd: my singular (up until now) post on SpaceX ("Falcons and Dragons reaching for the stars").
The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft "caught by the tail" on the CRS-2 mission to the ISS. Image credit:

Being a fan of SpaceX and a regular on space and rocket forums, I've seen first hand the popularity of SpaceX grow from year to year. However, it's easy to fall in to the trap of seeing things from the space enthusiast bubble, so the high number of views for the SpaceX post compared to the posts on different topics somewhat confirms for me that there truly is widespread enthusiasm for SpaceX.

What I've now asked myself is what type of post I can write that will be of interest to readers. With so much going on, it can be confusing for both the enthusiast and non-enthusiast alike to have an idea of  how things are expected to roll out in the future. With that in mind, I've decided to throw together my list of messed up personal opinions on what the SpaceX timetable will look like over the coming months and years.
My, somewhat arbitrary, timetable for when certain SpaceX events will occur over the next few years. Click to  embiggen.
Next SpaceX launch: probably late October 2013
The next launch will be both the inaugural launch of the Falcon 9 v1.1 (Elon Musk tends to call it the F9R for Reusable) and the first launch from SpaceX's brand new launch complex at Vandenberg in California. Travelling atop the F9 will be Canada's CASSIOPE satellite. Its launch date is currently set for September 5th, which is less than a month away. A lot has to happen before a launch can occur, most notably the first successful hotfire of a F9 1.1 stack on a brand new launch pad. One well-informed industry insider on the forum expects the launch to occur no earlier than November, so my guess is riding the middle ground.

Next few launches: December 2013 to April 2014
Assuming the inaugural v1.1 launch goes well, two missions will probably launch in quick succession from Cape Canaveral in Florida: Thaicom 6 and SES-8. Three successful v1.1 launches will pave the way for NASA giving the go ahead for a new Dragon mission to the ISS, my guess is probably for April 2014. 

Development of crewed version of Dragon spacecraft
Amongst the milestones agreed upon by SpaceX and NASA, I will be looking forward to three in particular that are expected to occur over the next six to twelve months:
1. The pad abort test: this is slated for December 2013 from Cape Canaveral. SpaceX have already validated the test review milestone and, assuming that that the Dragon development is independent of F9 issues, we can probably expect to see some hardware on or near the pad in December and probably the test itself in January at the latest. This will probably be our first real look at the new version of the Dragon spacecraft, or at least something very similar. Of course, as mentioned above, SpaceX will have a backlog of launches to perform around that period, so it may prove difficult for the Dragon team to find some time on the pad at the Cape.
2. Critical Design Review: slated for March 2014. Given the delays with F9 v1.1 and possible issues that may occur during the pad abort test, it's probably reasonable to expect this milestone to slip by several months. This is a very important milestone as it locks the plans and protocols in place, allowing SpaceX to begin making hardware for an actual mission, probably an uncrewed flight to the ISS.
3. In-flight abort test: slated for April 2014. Going on what I've said above, I'd expect this to occur in about a year's time. This will be a spectacular icing-on-the-cake milestone, where SpaceX will launch a Dragon atop a Falcon 9 and then command the Dragon to abort during a critical phase of flight. The Dragon will blast away from the F9 using its powerful SuperDraco engines, and then parachute into the Atlantic. 

Reusable Falcon rocket
SpaceX's Grasshopper test vehicle, used for testing navigation and guidance algorithms for a reusable first stage of their Falcon rockets. Image Credit:

All future F9 launches will be carrying software on board allowing the first stage to attempt, after stage separation, an engine relight and flyback manoeuvre. For the first few flights this will probably involve controlled splash-down attempts in the Atlantic with no legs. Assuming all goes well, we can probably expect to see legs attached to the first stage starting from the second half of 2014. I would expect the first attempt at landing the first stage back at the launch site sometime around the third quarter of 2015. They will need regulatory approval for such an attempt and so far I've seen little to no information about a request from SpaceX to any authority to fly back a stage. A lot will hinge on their new Grasshopper program (GH2) that is set to begin from Spaceport America, NM, by the end of the year. As for the second stage, no reusable hardware (e.g. a second stage with a heat-shield) as yet to be seen, so there's no real point in speculating.

Falcon 9 Heavy
We know that quite a lot of, if not most of, the hardware has been built already and that they were initially hoping for a late 2013 launch. With their busy F9 v1.1 schedule, it's probably not unreasonable to think that the first F9H launch will not occur until mid 2014. A successful launch of the v1.1 from Vandenberg should get the ball rolling for the arrival and integration of F9H hardware at the Vandenberg launch site, probably around January 2014.

Wild guess: assuming all goes well (i.e. SpaceX succeed in acquiring a NASA contract to ferry crew to the ISS, and maybe Bigelow buys seats for customers to his private space station), then I would think it likely that SpaceX (i.e. Elon Musk) could propose in 2015 a detailed, fully-funded mission to Mars that would occur around the 2022-2025 time frame.

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