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.

Customer Vehicle Arrival
at Launch Site
Vehicle Launch Site
NASA Resupply to ISS – Flight 2 2012 F9/Dragon Cape Canaveral
ORBCOMM – Multiple Flights 2012-2014 Multiple Cape Canaveral
MDA Corp. (Canada) 2013 Falcon 9 Vandenberg
Falcon Heavy Demo Flight 2013 Falcon Heavy Vandenberg
SES (Europe) 2013 Falcon 9 Cape Canaveral
Thaicom (Thailand) 2013 Falcon 9 Cape Canaveral
NASA Resupply to ISS – Flight 3 2013 F9/Dragon Cape Canaveral
NASA Resupply to ISS – Flight 4 2013 F9/Dragon Cape Canaveral
NSPO (Taiwan) 2013 Falcon 9 Vandenberg

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

Description Date Amount
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.

  • basti

    Check out the SpaceX Forum

  • Thomas Lee Elifritz

    I too am skeptical of Mars as a destination, but I am also considerably less skeptical since Mr. Musk has taken it up as his pet project. First of all, Mars is COLD. on the other hand, it has a couple of nicely placed small MOONS. And it offers superb fuel economy on landing because of its atmosphere, and this atmosphere is perfect for plants – just let a little carbon dioxide atmosphere into the growing spaces. On the other hand, Mars is cold. Real cold. And its ambient light is a little weak at the surface, and only available seasonally, just as it is here on planet Earth. Finally Mars is DISTANT. Thus it will be extremely hard to find regular flights and thus the entire concept falls apart.

    I was and still am extremely skeptical of the moon as well, until I learned of the severity of radiation problems of deep space and learned about lunar poles. I still remained quite skeptical until I started simulating lunar direct flights to the poles, and now I am considerably less skeptical than I was of the moon as a destination, however, I am still skeptical that congress and NASA and indeed the president and his advisors will be able to keep pace with the seemingly daily scientific and engineering advances and make the necessary technical and engineering changes to their idiotic rocket design to make the development of the poles of the moon vastly more affordable and sustainable than previously imagined. Simple things like getting rid of the astronauts and managing boiloff, replacing the SRBs with reusable LRBs and getting rid of the payload fairing. Just the idea of an expendable heavy lift launch vehicle should be revolting.

    And while I agree that small meter sized asteroids in earth resonant or Trojan orbits make an appealing destination, until they can be definitely identified with satellite observations they remain speculative and it would be foolish to base NASA space policy on unidentified targets. Zombie satellites seem vastly more appealing, in particular, Envisat makes an reasonable first destination.

    I hope that helps. Certainly SpaceX has been the best thing to happen to space.

  • Jason

    Doug, do you have a source for 3000 employees? Last I heard, they had slightly more than 2000.

  • DougSpace

    Thomas, I would like to dialogue with you by e-mail re: a public-private architecture for developing the Moon without the need for the SLS. If you like, please contact me at DougSpace007-Gmail. Thx

  • Trainspotter

    The upgraded version of Falcon 9 will use a ring (instead of tic-tac-toe) configuration for the 9 Merlin 1D engines (First question: with or without a central engine?). According to SpaceX, this configuration should save some structural weight because it puts all the thrust on the hard ring edge.

    The only other rocket using an annular engine configuration was the ill-fated Russian N-1 moon rocket in the early seventies. Pulling inward the 30 engines as the rocket climbed, this configuration allowed a “plug effect” gradually optimizing the exhaust gas shape for vacuum conditions. Second question: Will the upgraded Falcon 9 use such a plug effect?

  • Thomas Lee Elifritz

    The exhaust plume on the Falcon 9 Version 1.1 with the circular or octagaonal outer engine placement is certainly going to look different than what we’ve been looking at with these launches. But if you look closely what is going on basically you can bump out the edge engines on the 3 by 3 just a bit to get this geometry. There really isn’t a whole lot of change except for basic geometry with seems more elegant all around. And when he clusters these boosters for really big launchers they will be compartmentalized, much different from the N-1. I’m with Mr. Musk on this, bigger is better when it comes to deep space. Any incremental lunar campaign is going to be messy and expensive and there will be much room for mistakes and error, but also a lot more infrastructure in place to recover from those mistakes or mishaps. But I just want to get something on the moon now, and the big rocket is funded, so what the heck. The biggest impediment to space development is astronauts in my opinion. Remove them, remove the payload and integrate the mission into the launcher or upper stage and you can deliver a huge amount of infrastructure at almost zero risk. I want to see something thrown at the moon real soon now.

    In this day and age, we can throw stuff to the moon as fast as we can build it. Think giant reusable moon rocket launch with a live televised landing three days later and then a little rover to run around and take a bunch of pictures of the giant moon ship sitting on the moon with the Earth on the horizon.

    This, I believe, is something that people could wrap their minds around.

  • alex wilson

    Thomas,two questions:
    why haul all that excess hardware to and from the Moon? you haul a lot of weight (re-entry protection, extra fuel, etc.)that you don’t need to get to and from the surface of the Moon.
    why are people going to care about watching rover-supplied images of anything on the Moon?
    neither reasons make much sense, and especially in the case of a reusable Earth-to-Moon-and-back vehicle, you’re going to have to spend a lot of time and money to develop new technology. does it make sense to make a return to the Moon dependent on finding the time andmoney to do this, and hoping no surprises pop up as you try to develop the new technology?

  • Thomas Lee Elifritz

    Hi Alex, what I’m trying to do is develop new ‘techniques’. If you don’t know what you are doing it doesn’t make sense to develop new technologies. This is a one way uncrewed technique that does exactly what it was designed to do. But yes, it would be better not to land the large core stage directly on the moon, unfueled, if you want to return. So I have recently extended this concept to booster recovery via lunar circumnavigation, using a split trajectory where the payload lander, upper stage, or whatever you choose to call it, diverges from the equatorial booster after TLI and then directly lands onto the pole of the moon. This allows for a much smaller and more efficient reusable lander and still allows for the redirection and/or recovery of the large and valuable core stage. All of this is contingent upon new and innovative cryogenic insulation, fuel settling and boiloff recovery technology, which is yet another technique. Probably a reusable lander wouldn’t be cryogenic but if it has the capability of lifting off and returning directly to Earth it too can be recovered as well. If you can keep cryogenic fuels for at least a week or more I suppose you could land, dump, grab and leave. Maybe just quick change passengers or something. A lot of interesting possibilities open up with giant reusable liquid launchers and the added impulse of hydrogen, that are otherwise not available and require long messy campaigns to summit. That is the fundamental point I am trying to make, certainly with respect to the SLS. An expendable SLS is just unfounded.

    As far as the giant rocket and the live landing and photos, I wouldn’t suggest it if there wasn’t a real need to do it (from a science and engineering perspective, it just hasn’t been done and we don’t have a clue what is going on up (down) there) and if there wasn’t a large hydogen rocket on the books and of the necessary engines and technologies, and a commercial reusable booster partner to make it work. I’m not sure if you are getting the scale of it.

    I just bumped an abstract up here.

  • Ben

    SpaceX only managed 3 launches in 2013, although they did managed to launch 2 within one month of each other if we include January 2014, the next flight will be March 16 at the earliest, 2 months since the previous launch. If we are very lucky we might, perhaps see 6 flights this years, tops, from SpaceX