CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — On Monday, April 30, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) will take the final step on the road to orbit before launching one of the company’s Falcon 9 rockets May 7. The NewSpace firm will conduct what is known as a static test fire of the rocket’s nine Merlin engines. During this test, the engines will be ignited in a final test before the upcoming launch. The Falcon 9 will essentially go through everything that the rocket will need to do on launch day – except conduct liftoff.
For those wanting to view the static test fire, they need only visit www.spacex.com on April 30. SpaceX will kick things off at 2:30 p.m. EDT (11:30 a.m. PDT). The test fire itself is slated to take place at 3 p.m. EDT (12 p.m. EDT). SpaceX will also webcast the launch live at www.spacex.com.
The engine test will take place at SpaceX’s Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) located at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The test fire is part of a full launch dress rehearsal that must be completed prior to the second demonstration flight in the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) launch.
This $1.6 billion contract requires that SpaceX conduct three demonstration flights and nine resupply flights to the International Space Station (ISS). One cannot say that SpaceX lacks ambition. The private space firm sought out – and received permission to conduct the requirements of the second and third demonstration flights – into one. If all goes according to plan SpaceX will have met all the requirements of the COTS 2 and COTS 3 missions in a single flight.
Once the test fire is completed, engineers at SpaceX will review the data and make any changes prior to launch which is currently set to take place at 9:38 a.m. EDT. If the Dragon proves itself ready to carry cargo to the ISS, SpaceX can begin fulfilling the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract that it has with NASA. This means at least 12 missions to carry cargo to and from the space station (Dragon, unlike similar Russian, Japanese and European spacecraft is reusable).
The upcoming mission is slated to happen like this; the Falcon 9 will launch, sending the Dragon spacecraft into orbit. Once there the Dragon will have crucial systems and sensors tested out as the vehicle rendezvous with the ISS. If everything checks out the spacecraft will be grappled using the space station’s robotic arm. It will then be berthed to the Earth-facing node of the station’s harmony module. The crew on board the ISS will then open the Dragon’s hatch and unload the cargo that it will contain. SpaceX is prepared for the possibility that if things don’t go according to plan.
If any part of the mission is unsuccessful – then an actual third demonstration flight will be scheduled and those unfinished requirements will conducted on the third demonstration flight.
The COTS 2/COTS 3 flight will be one for the history books. It will mark the first time that a privately-owned spacecraft has traveled to and potentially berthed with the orbiting laboratory. It will also go a long way toward vindicating NASA’s commercial crew and cargo efforts.
As ambitious as the commercial space company is – it also cautious. The last launch of one of the company’s Falcon 9 rockets took place on Dec. 10, 2010. Since that time, SpaceX has been working to make sure that all of the requirements for the next flight have been completed and that the Falcon 9 rocket was ready.
Both the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft are designed to carry both crew and cargo. It is hoped that flights conducted on the COTS and CRS missions will provide the experience needed to accomplish these objectives. SpaceX needs to gain this experience as the company has signed multiple contracts with both commercial and government customers to launch a wide range of satellites and spacecraft. The May 7 COTS 2/COTS 3 flight will mark the third launch of the Falcon 9 and the eighth launch total.