November 30 Targeted For Next Falcon 9 Test

November 30 Targeted For Next Falcon 9 Test

SpaceX and NASA are targeting November 30, 2011 for the next test of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and the Dragon capsule.

SpaceX issued a press release today restating what a NASA official said earlier that the two have agreed in principle to merging the next two tests into one, but a final decision is pending. SpaceX originally planned three test flights as part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. The first, in December 2010, was so successful that the company asked permission to combine the other two. NASA has been evaluating the risks associated with combining the two tests for many months. SpaceX explained today that the remaining issues are related to additional payloads the company wants to deploy from the Falcon 9 after Dragon is released for its trip to the International Space Station (ISS). “NASA will grant formal approval for the combined COTS missions pending resolution of any potential risks associated with these secondary payloads,” the company said. The combined test includes berthing the Dragon capsule at the ISS.

NASA is anxious for SpaceX and its COTS competitor Orbital Sciences Corp. to demonstrate their systems for taking cargo to the ISS. With the space shuttle sent into retirement, and NASA’s agreement with Russia to launch cargo on Russia’s Progress spacecraft coming to an end, the only way for NASA to get cargo to the ISS will be aboard Europe’s ATV and Japan’s HTV spacecraft if the COTS systems do not materialize. NASA stocked the ISS with a year’s worth of supplies with the final shuttle flights to guard against any delays in the COTS program. COTS is a development program; the services the companies would provide to NASA are called Commercial Resupply Services (CRS). NASA hopes that CRS flights will begin early in 2012. These are only for cargo, not crew, although SpaceX plans to use the Dragon capsule to take astronauts to and from the ISS and other low Earth orbit destinations in the future.

Orbital planned only one test flight, in 2011, but it has not yet occurred and now two tests are expected. Its efforts are being slowed by construction for the launch site at Wallops Island, VA and suffered another setback in June when a Taurus II engine caught fire while being tested at NASA’s Stennis Space Center. Aviation Week reported on Friday that the fire was caused by a kerosene leak from the fuel manifold on the outside of the engine. Taurus II will use Aerojet’s AJ-26 engines, which are refurbished Russian NK-33 engines originally designed for the Soviet Union’s unsuccessful 1960s-era N-1 Moon rocket. The kerosene leak was from a 40-year-old part of the engine. Orbital plans two test launches of the Taurus II as part of the COTS program. Its current schedule calls for the first test launch in very late 2011, the second test in the middle of the first quarter of 2012, and two CRS missions later in 2012.

The companies and NASA reassured Congress at a May 26 hearing that the systems would be ready soon.

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