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First Falcon 9 rocket now coming together at the Cape

Posted: January 29, 2010

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All the pieces of the first Falcon 9 rocket due to launch between March and May have been trucked into Cape Canaveral, leaving just a handful of final tasks and closeouts before the booster is lifted atop the pad for tanking and engine tests.

The Falcon 9 rocket sits inside a hangar at Complex 40. See our photo gallery. Credit: Justin Ray/Spaceflight Now
The rocket's second stage arrived at the Cape earlier this week after finishing acceptance testing in Texas, filling the shiny new SpaceX hangar at Complex 40 with rocket hardware for the first time.

See our complete photo gallery from this week.

The nine-engine first stage and the first launch's rudimentary Dragon capsule arrived in Florida late last year. Those components are nearly ready for launch, said Tim Buzza, SpaceX's vice president of launch operations.

Technicians are finishing closeouts and working with the first stage destruct system as engineers put the second stage through a slate of propulsion systems tests. The avionics system and Merlin engine nozzle will also be installed on the upper stage in the coming days.

"The [first] stage is fully checked out electrically, and propulsion and structures are all happy," Buzza said. "So we're just putting the final closeout pieces on."

The launch pad itself, formerly used by the Air Force Titan 4 rocket, is nearly ready for the maiden launch. Workers are adding an minor extension to the flame trench and finishing up pipelines.

The Falcon 9 stages sit on rail tracks similar to the integration concept used by the Ukrainian Zenit rocket and other Russian launchers.

Buzza said he hopes to have the rocket fully assembled and ready to roll out from the hangar to the launch pad by mid-February, but officials first plan a series of mission simulations involving the fully-integrated rocket.

Massive cranes will lift the rocket from the floor, allowing the transporter and erector system to slide underneath the vehicle.

"Then it's four or five days to get all mated up, then another couple days to get on the [transporter]. We have about two days on the pad for the first time we come out and hook up. We're going to do a quick pad check to pick out any high-risk items that we don't have to find on wet dress [rehearsal] day," Buzza said.

The transporter will be pulled by a tug similar to the tractors used on planes on airport tarmacs. It will take about 15 minutes to reach the pad, then the rocket will be lifted upright, according to Buzza, who also serves as Falcon 9 launch director.

The first order of business on the pad will be a wet dress rehearsal that includes loading kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants into both stages.

Buzza said the rehearsal's "primary purpose is the ground system's interaction with the rocket, whether it be propellants, helium, or nitrogen, and then it's getting the timeline cadence down."

"Depending on how those tests go, we'll just drive into the next step," Buzza said.

Complex 40 has been modified to support Falcon 9 launches. Credit: Justin Ray/Spaceflight Now
Officials are still tweaking the countdown, which will be run by around 30 managers and engineers stationed inside the SpaceX Launch Control Center about 12 miles south of the launch pad.

"Hopefully, once we're through that and figure out the ground systems, then we put that part behind us and figure out how we light the engines," Buzza said.

The static test firing will include officials from the Air Force-controlled Eastern Range and the SpaceX launch team for a full-up mission rehearsal.

"We're going to act like that's launch day, and there we get the cadence between the two groups," Buzza said.

After the engine test, which is expected to last a few seconds, SpaceX will move the rocket back to the hangar for the final installation of the the vehicle's self-destruct system that would terminate the flight if problems developed during launch.

When the Falcon 9 reaches the pad again, some time no earlier than the first week of March, it will be ready for flight. Liftoff is currently set for around March 8 during a four-hour launch window that opens at 11 a.m. EST.

Company leaders stress the launch date is preliminary and is subject to change, saying liftoff could occur between March and May.

The Falcon 9 will propel the Dragon capsule into low Earth orbit on a flight simulating SpaceX's first mission for NASA demonstrating cargo delivery to the International Space Station.

Elon Musk, SpaceX's founder and CEO, said the Falcon 9's inaugural flight is all about learning.

"The more data we gain, the more successful the mission," Musk said. "As with any test, success is a function of how much data you gather from that test. So it's going to be somewhere between 0 and 100 percent."

The Falcon 9 will eventually launch operational Dragon missions to resupply the space station with crucial logistics and science experiments after the space shuttle's retirement at the end of this year.

The first Falcon 9 rocket will be a demonstration mission with the Dragon qualification unit. Credit: SpaceX
Musk is also hoping to win a NASA contract to develop a piloted version of the Dragon as part of the new commercial focus of the human space program expected to be announced Monday.

SpaceX, which includes almost 900 workers across the country, now employs a staff of about 45 engineers and technicians permanently located in Florida. Dozens of other workers from California and Texas fly to the Cape during busy periods.

"It's quite real," Buzza said. "We're talking about how to get to the end game and tailoring procedures and who has the authority to do what."

"When they're in the hangar putting this together, they're not putting it together for a wet dress or a static fire, they're putting it together for flight," Buzza said.