Shotwell: Still a Couple of Months From Falcon 9 Return to Flight

Gwynne Shotwell
Gwynne Shotwell

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said on Monday the company is still a couple of months away from returning the Falcon 9 booster to flight following the launch failure on June 28.

The investigation of the accident is taking longer than originally planned, Shotwell said during a panel discussion at the AIAA Space 2015 Conference in Pasadena. The company is doing a review of its supply chain.

The company has blamed the failure of a strut in the upper stage for the failure, which destroyed a Dragon cargo ship headed for the International Space Station.

The return to flight will feature the first test of the upgraded Falcon 9, which is being tweaked to improve its performance. Shotwell admitted this flight was keeping her up at night.

She said a customer has been identified for the return to flight but would not identify it.

Editor’s Note: I’ve been hearing reliable reports that something more than the strut was the cause of the accident in June. The last I heard, they were still trying to figure out exactly what happened.

  • Brent

    Go SpaceX

  • Smokey_the_Bear

    those are the worst kind of accidents…the kind where you guess what went wrong.

    Hopefully the next rocket doesn’t go kaboom. BTW, what “upgrades” are on the next launch?

  • redneck

    With all due respect, I hope that the reliable reports aren’t and the strut ends up as the whole story.

  • Douglas Messier

    Aviation Week wrote about the changes:

    Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of Hawthorne, California-based
    SpaceX, says the improvements include a 15% boost in thrust for the
    rocket’s nine core-stage engines, as well as super-chilled propellant
    and a 10% increase in the volume of the upper-stage tank, according to
    Musk’s Twitter feed.

  • TimR

    Better call it 3 months more to reach “return to flight”. The better judge of it is Hans Koenigsmann, Vice President, Mission Assurance, SpaceX. On stage at AIAA’s conference, after Shotwell, he called it his gut feeling and stated “2…or 3 months”. Also stated “mid-November”. Put those two together and you are really talking December. Call it early December so that the SpaceX employees actually have some time for the holidays. A lot of NASA people take off after the 1st week of December which makes having the Cape fully staffed another issue.

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Other reports indicate that although some other factors such as certain hoses and connectors, were considered as possibilities, they have been eliminated. Struts continue as primary cause.

  • TimR

    Foust at spacenews called it about a 30% boost in performance. Put the 15%, super-chilled propellant and 10% increase in volume and maybe it means 30%. I would think the perf gain is in terms of delta-V.

  • Douglas Messier

    They take early December off? Did you mean January? Or are we talking the week after Thanksgiving?

    I’m not sure how much Elon gives a crap about holidays. He tried launching a comsat a few years ago on Thanksgiving Day. That’s because they hadn’t launched much that year, and were hoping to get another launch off in late December if they could do a launch on Thanksgiving. Turns out they did neither.

    I recall being rather annoyed at the whole thing. For one, it was a freaking holiday and I don’t get a lot of days off. Days like Thanksgiving are pretty sacrosanct unless the space station explodes or something else really important happens. Second, I was doing my favorite Thanksgiving thing and cooking up a turkey full of my special stuffing and getting all the other fixings ready. But instead of being able to fully enjoy that, I had to watch them twice abort a launch that day. Of a comsat. All because SpaceX was behind in its manifest.

  • TimR

    Yeah, that crossed my mind but consider the pressure cooker a lot of SpaceX folks will have been in since June 28th. You might be right. They might even try back to back flights given the first is successful but its asking a lot of everyone; Musk is demanding. Also, if they nail a 1st stage landing, they’ll have a trophy to take home and evaluate and maybe fly again. Hopefully, one fully successful flight this year. I wish I could help.

  • BorgWorshipper

    SpaceX would launch on Dec 25 if they had to, but the USAF and other Government agencies frown on that, so they won’t.

  • Ivor O’Connor

    Couple more months? Is that Elon Musk time or real time?


    Shame NASA wasn’t on Elon time for the past 40 years.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Space X imaginary time means give or take a year. NASA imaginary is on the order of 40 years and growing for return to the Moon let alone Mars. Not to mention the 35 years spent trying to develop a shuttle replacement, or augmentation. Space X gets things done. They come in late, but they come in. There’s no comparison to NASA.


    I couldn’t think of better present, on Christmas day, than a booster on a barge.

  • Smokey_the_Bear

    Can’t wait to see the Model X, It will be available in 2013. lol

    If I was a betting man, I would say early December. For Space X’s sake, I hope it’s a success. They may be a billion dollar company, but when your messing with 60 million dollar rockets, it would only take 3-4 failures in a row before Space X would go under.

  • windbourne

    Primary cause, but does that mean nothing else had issues?
    I have been wondering what happened with Grasshopper?
    Why that one blow and so little was said about it?

  • mfck

    Why would they have 3-4 failures in a row?!

  • Barnaby Osborne

    Anyone have any knowledge what this means for the SpaceX CRS flights? I guess CRS-8 is going to be delayed, by the launch schedule for CRS-9 is still listing Dec 9th. This seems unrealistic given this news?

  • ILikeFish

    Remember Elon originally said they planned to “catch up” and fly everyone they planned to fly by end of year. Looks like they might do one. . .

  • Saturn13

    Wow. I think they need a back up launch system. Buy SRM and and launch Dragon with them. Hard for them to do. I think they could and should. O-ATK went to ULA. SpaceX should go to O-ATK. Since they like to do themselves, make their on SRM eventually. Depending on only one system is not a good idea. I am sure many problems will be pointed out to me, but I have confidence that SpaceX could overcome them and build adapters quickly. O-ATK may not be able to supply them rapidly though. Maybe the F9 launch pad would not fall apart with the SRM. Might need a new strong back. Athena 3 sounds good. Hire or copy. Very few things to worry about with SRB. Gwen could get some sleep.

  • Solartear

    What else is there to say about F9R-Dev1 ? It died because a sensor gave bad data. It would not happen on F9 because it has multiple copies of the sensor. Having all the debris/pieces available makes the task easier.

  • Hug Doug

    No. No. No. No.

    First off, designing an entirely new launch vehicle would be far more time-consuming and costly than just fixing what’s wrong with the Falcon 9.

    Secondly, using solid rocket motors isn’t the solution, they are antithetical to everything that SpaceX is trying to achieve.

    Thirdly, they don’t need to go to Orbital-ATK. They had to design a new launch vehicle to solve their problems, they have enough issues to deal with, Orbital-ATK doesn’t need to design a new launch vehicle for SpaceX.


    Seriously, are you trying to come up with the worst ideas possible????

  • Hug Doug

    “a couple months” puts RTF in November, and that still leaves all of December for launches. I would guess at least 3 launches before end of year. With the Jason-3 launch from Vandenberg, maybe 4.

  • ILikeFish

    It would surprise me if they launch in November at all, frankly.

    I was being a BIT sarcastic when I said they might do one. I am pretty confident they will do 2 anyway.

  • Ivor O’Connor

    lol, I hope you don’t become disappointed and become jaded when things don’t work out.

  • Hug Doug

    ? why do you say that??

  • Ivor O’Connor

    Because timetables are always overly optimistic. Year after year this optimism continues. While reality is very consistent if you base the future on the past. Maybe with a slight percentage increase each year. Based on SpaceX’s past performance with a slight percentage increase we will be very luck to see a single launch this year…

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Consider all the changes to their processes they are making. Even after a successful return to flight there will be a lot of data to pour over to take stock of what worked and what did not. Also consider that even if things should work out, there will likely be issues during any flight that may cause a un announced pause. I would expect 1 more flight this calendar year, and should everything go well, 2 at most.

  • Hug Doug

    OK, based on SpaceX’s past history of launches, they have launched in December in 2010 and in 2013, and attempted to launch in December last year. They have launched twice in the same month on two different occasions, September 2014 and April 2015. So it’s not unheard of for SpaceX to launch twice in one month. If RTF is in November, then thinking they may try to launch twice in December is not unreasonable. And if Jason-3 launches from Vandenberg, that would make 4 launches. Or they could launch Jason-3, but wind up launching just once in December, making 3 launches as well.

  • Generally most aerospace types have lots of vacation time, but don’t use it throughout the year. It accumulates until they are forced to use it in December. All the contractors, national labs and program offices become ghost towns starting in December. Never plan for a lot of work to get done in an aerospace company in December. There just won’t be enough people around to do it.

  • Hug Doug

    That makes sense.


    I wonder how soon SpaceX will a launch vehicle based on raptor?

    They may have a back-up in five years plus

    I don’t think falcon heavy will be around all that long since you have to recover 3 boosters.

    Seems a raptor single stick would be cheaper and safer (less engines)

  • Larry J

    I wonder if NASA works like many of the DoD civilians that I encounter as a contractor. When it comes to scheduling meetings and getting things done, here’s how a typical year goes:
    January – everyone getting back up to speed after the holidays. It’s hard to get much done for the first few weeks.
    February – Usually not too bad, weather permitting.
    March – Spring break takes out at least one week
    April – Usually not too bad
    May – First few weeks aren’t too bad but people start becoming scarce about a week before Memorial Day.
    June, July, August – people taking vacations make it hard to schedule anything
    September – people busy in the last month of the fiscal year
    October – people buys in the first month of the fiscal year
    November – First three weeks are ok, then Thanksgiving
    December – you can just about forget about getting anything done.

  • Larry J

    There are lies, damned lies, and launch schedules. SpaceX isn’t the only one with the problem of slipping schedules.

  • Hug Doug

    Several years, since Raptor is still in development. 5+ years is a reasonable guess.

    Also, based on the currently reported thrust from the Raptor engines, I would assume the BFR would have more engines than the Falcon Heavy.

  • TimR

    missed impact of interns during summer timeframe otherwise spot on.

  • Kirk

    Dan Leone of SpaceNews reports that the ISS Advisory committee “says SpaceX’s 8th CRS mission (first after failure on June 28) will launch Nov. 15.” and that is not necessarily the return to flight, as rumor has it that SES’s satellite will take that role, though SES has not confirmed this.

    It sounds as if SpaceX will attempt a launch every other week, which would be quite an accomplishment given that the return to flight will also be the debut flight of Falcon v1.2 (aka, full thrust falcon, with propellant densification and slightly stretched first stage). Their final Falcon v1.1 is reserved for Jason out of Vandenberg, perhaps at the end of the year.

  • SpaceTech

    “There’s no comparison to NASA”
    Absolutely correct!
    Space X is a business.
    NASA is a juggernaut government jobs program that slowly and surely produces fantastic programs.

  • I keep hearing from good sources that SpaceX has not nailed-down the true cause of the launch mishap. A big problem is that the WB-57 flights were stopped after CRS-4, so all imagery for the launch was ground-based.

    Nobody I’m talking to thinks SpaceX will do more than 1-2 launches by year-end. And so the backlog wave of SpaceX launches only builds-up. I think that it needs to do something like 12 launches in 2016 and 2017, and that still leaves approximately 18 or so launches between 2018 and 2019, I believe.

  • Lewis

    I saw the same on the crs 8 date. Same for ses. I’m not sure about the pace after that. There could be delay before certification for high value stuff.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    Because we never, ever have anything more important to do with our tax money than launch people into space to go to distant places and collect rocks.

  • Aegis Maelstrom

    I am really puzzled why you are taking it as a “SpaceX vs. NASA”.

    Firstly, why so negative, Andrew? While I share partially your concerns, like regarding Shuttle, let’s be honest: SpaceX is an easy target.

    I know that on this site you can often see a “besieged tower syndrome” a.k.a. “Thou shalt love Musk and whoever doubts in the holy SpaceX is the Enemy of a Convent of Spacecadetry”. 😀 but I thought you are far from it.

    Secondly, I am really surprised that the NASA itself is a new enemy here: previosly these were politicians (and TBH if anyone has a “Armageddon”/old space race imaginery, they are to blame), ULA, Arianespace, teh Russians or Chinese tech spies.

    Summing up, ofc I am not a fan of corrupted politics in USA or milking the situation by old vendors, but I think SpaceX is mature enough to be asked the adult questions.

    Take care.

  • Aegis Maelstrom

    TBH, it sounds more or less like any place of work with a larger number of people, especially if you are meetings-dependent*.

    Of course, local holidays and reporting dates apply.

    * – and oh boy, Americans are known for their meetings mania. =)

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    NASA the enemy? No. They’re my nations’ space program. Right or wrong. I give that as both a pledge and a lament. No matter the malfunctions in my country these days, we still pretend to be a nation of the people and by the people. If we still put that forward as our public face, I get to publicly call it to task. The problem with NASA is it stagnated for 40+ years. Space X has learned to undo a lot of stagnation that has plagued almost everyone else in American government and industry. Perfect they are not. Nor would I claim to do it better if put into their shoes. They are operating at the bleeding edge of the real world and they don’t have fear to fly and fail. Everyone who focuses on flying is going to run up against resource limitations, or limitations in the choices they have made in their operations culture. If you read through some of my other statements, you’d see I’m not a Space X fanboi. Space X does suffer from over estimation of their schedule. However the real world magnitude slip of their schedule is nothing compared with NASA’s.

    An organization like Space X could never have conducted the in depth exploration of the Solar System NASA did over the 60 odd years they spent doing it. NASA used to be the kind of organization that could do what Space X does today, but no longer can. Space X has shown that Americans can reverse our lethargy. I think they deserve a lot of kudos for having done that.

  • Smokey_the_Bear

    I don’t think they will. But the fact is, their best GUESS is the strut…but they cant be certain. I’m just saying, anything is possible.

  • windbourne

    Actually, I think that he was being sarcastic.

  • windbourne

    Interestingly, musk said originally that they were going to go with multi-core for BFR, but says that it is too much work.
    Basically, you are right. BFR is supposed to have many more than 9 engines.

  • Aegis Maelstrom

    Aye, I understand your approach to ESA. Being European myself, I am looking at ESA’s one-tenth-heartened efforts in human spaceflight like IXV and I am trying to convince myself that it will have some real use. And they will build this reusable spacecraft, eventually. Or that the overengineered ATVs can lead to something more than a service module for a, perhaps even more, overengineered SLS/Orion.

    It is good we have some scientific missions – at least the researchers are pushing for some tangible data to publish, so Mars rovers, Rosettas, Keplers, Gaias and envisats are working quite O.K. It is good that European Union fought for consumers’ access to space like navisats and telecomsats – otherwise this market would be very sad.

    Ofc, these entrenched space behemoths are a festival of red tape and byzantine policies (Arianespace CEO running a show during a Vega flight? couldn’t they use some more competent mission manager/expert?). One some other news, a consulting company tries to sell their report on sats, calling the space industry “a frontier one” – which is very funny as the whole industry is composed of military/aero/telco veterans, strongly connected to govts and launching for decades.

    OTOH they are still people and some of them do try – like with commercial programmes (these delayed CRS – they are paid by NASA after all) and a knowledge transfer. Or all the programs that are actually frontier ones. Unfortunately, the org got old. These are no longer times of a bleeding edge and a space race. Other thing is, there can be some negative selection – I am not sure what are the paychecks, but a rocket engineer sounds worse now than a software engineer, or a computational biologist. Budget cuts on public sector (sans military&intelligence), third world hiccups like a frequent lack of a budget, pork and visionless politicians, the fall of the middle class in US, the rise of a luxury consumption of the top 1% – they are certainly not helping here either.

    Conservatism, deficit of dreams and the jobs programmes on the other side of the pond are not cool as well.
    But hey, maybe it is our task to be the leaders of opinion to call for a change? 🙂

    Have a nice day. 🙂

  • Saturn13

    Could be the worse idea for SpaceX. They might help someone come up with new competition. Ares-1X is a partial system already tested. They probably don’t have the wish, time or money to make a SRB system. Everyone will just wait. I really like SpaceX. I would not try to hurt them.

  • Sam86