SpaceX’s Manifest Will Continue to Confound in 2013

Below is a selected section of SpaceX’s launch manifest. Now, review it carefully; there will be a quiz.

CustomerVehicle Arrival
at Launch Site
VehicleLaunch Site
NASA Resupply to ISS – Flight 22012F9/DragonCape Canaveral
ORBCOMM – Multiple Flights2012-2014MultipleCape Canaveral
MDA Corp. (Canada)2013Falcon 9Vandenberg
Falcon Heavy Demo Flight2013Falcon HeavyVandenberg
SES (Europe)2013Falcon 9Cape Canaveral
Thaicom (Thailand)2013Falcon 9Cape Canaveral
NASA Resupply to ISS – Flight 32013F9/DragonCape Canaveral
NASA Resupply to ISS – Flight 42013F9/DragonCape Canaveral
NSPO (Taiwan)2013Falcon 9Vandenberg

Now, at first glance, that looks really, really ambitious, doesn’t it? Especially for a company that flew twice in 2012. So, just how many flights will SpaceX undertake this year? Nine? No.

WRONG! You just failed the quiz, brainiac. EPIC COSMIC FAIL!

Take a closer look at column 2: Vehicle Arrival at Launch Site. That means not all of these flights will take place this year. As a result, SpaceX’s launch manifest is always difficult to read and schedule slips hard to pin down.

Fortunately, Spaceflight Now publishes a handy Worldwide Launch Schedule. According to the current schedule, we can expect five flights from SpaceX this year:

  • March 1: NASA Resupply Flight No. 2 to ISS (Falcon 9, Dragon — Cape Canaveral)
  • April: MDA/Canadian Space Agency Cassiope satellite (Falcon 9 — Vandenberg)
  • June: SES 8 satellite (Falcon 9 — Cape Canaveral)
  • August: ORCOMM OG2 satellites (Falcon 9 — Cape Canaveral)
  • September 30: NASA Resupply Flight No. 3 to ISS (Falcon 9, Dragon — Cape Canaveral)

The April launch of Cassiope will be the first flight with the upgraded Merlin 1D engines, elongated tanks and payload fairing (a.k.a., Falcon 9 v.1.1). It will also be SpaceX’s first launch from its new complex at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. All previous Falcon 9 missions have flown from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The SES 8 flight will be SpaceX’s first attempt to place a spacecraft into geosynchronous orbit where the majority of communications satellites reside. That will be a major step forward for the company.

With CEO Elon Musk wanting to take the company public, SpaceX will need to significantly increase its launch rate to about once per month. The current schedule doesn’t get them there this year, but it’s possible that additional flights could be added. SpaceX now has 3,000 employees and has been hiring like crazy in an effort to ramp up production while at the same time maintaining high quality. That will be a delicate balancing act.

The company will continue work this year on its Grasshopper suborbital vehicle, which is designed to test techniques for recovering and reusing Falcon 9 stages. It will also continue to assemble the Falcon Heavy rocket at Vandenberg for a likely test flight in 2014.

Commercial Crew Program Goals

SpaceX has an ambitious schedule of seven milestones to complete this year under the NASA-funded commercial crew program which is aimed at transforming the Dragon freighter into a crew vehicle and human rating the Falcon 9 booster.

The company’s efforts this year are set to culminate in a pad abort test in December. SpaceX is eligible for up to $440 million during this phase of the commercial crew program, which ends in 2014.

CCiCAP Milestones for 2013

5.Pad Abort Test Review. SpaceX will hold a Pad Abort Test Review to demonstrate the maturity of the pad abort test article design and test concept of operations.March 2013$20 Million
6.Human Certification Plan Review. SpaceX will hold a Human Certification Plan Review to present the Human Certification Plan. This Human Certification Plan Review will cover plans for certification of the design of the spacecraft, launch vehicle, and ground and mission operations systems.May 2013$50 Million
7.On-Orbit and Entry Preliminary Design Review (PDR). SpaceX will hold an On-Orbit and Entry Preliminary Design Review (PDR) to demonstrate that the overall CTS preliminary design for orbit, rendezvous and docking with the ISS, and entry flight regimes meets all requirements with acceptable risk and within schedule constraints and that it establishes the basis for proceeding with detailed design.July 2013$35 Million
8.In-Flight Abort Test Review. SpaceX will hold an In-Flight Abort Test Review to demonstrate the maturity of the in-flight abort test article design and test concept of operations.September 2013$10 Million
9.Safety Review. SpaceX will hold a Safety Review at the SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, CA, or a nearby facility to demonstrate that the CTS design is progressing toward meeting the Commercial Crew Program’s safety goals.October 2013$50 Million
10.Flight Review of Upgraded Falcon 9. SpaceX will conduct a review of a launch of the upgraded Falcon 9 launch vehicle demonstrating the operation of enhanced first-stage M1D engines, stage separation systems, enhanced second-stage MVacD engine and mission-critical vehicle telemetry during flight. Demonstration of the upgraded launch vehicle will serve as a risk reduction for the planned inflight abort test.November 2013$0
11.Pad Abort Test. SpaceX will conduct a pad abort test of the Dragon spacecraft. The scenario where an abort is initiated while the CTS is still on the pad is a design driver for the launch abort system as it dictates the total impulse and also requires parachute deployment in close proximity to the ground.December 2013$30 Million
TOTAL:$195 Million

Mars Ho!

Musk continues to tease the media and his legion of fans worldwide with hints of ambitious endeavors at the Red Planet even as he struggles with his launch manifest aimed at getting things into Earth orbit. His plans include future colony for 80,000 people. Other hints have included a powerful LOX-methane Raptor engine that would be used on the MCT (which I assume probably means Mars something something).

I’m having trouble taking Musk’s comments about Mars seriously at this point given past schedule slips on far easier tasks. I admire his ambition and drive, but there are a lot of things to be done between now and landing humans on the Red Planet.