Shotwell: Couple More Months Before Falcon 9 Launches Again, Will be New Version

Shotwell: Couple More Months Before Falcon 9 Launches Again, Will be New Version

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said today that it will be a “couple of months” before the Falcon 9 rocket returns to flight, longer than the company anticipated.   She also said it would be the first flight of an upgraded version of the rocket.

Speaking on a panel at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Space 2015 conference in Pasadena, CA, Shotwell said the company still believes that the cause of the June 28 Falcon 9 failure was a bad strut in the upper stage.  SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk announced that preliminary finding in late July, but said the investigation was ongoing.   Shotwell said today nothing has changed that diagnosis.

She said it now was not just a matter of fixing the problem, which is “easy,” but taking advantage of lessons learned and ensuring there are no other problems in the vehicle or the supply chain.  It is “taking more time than we originally envisioned,” but she does not expect customers to object since they do not want to rush and potentially have another failure.

Shotwell characterized fixing technical problems as “fun challenges.”  The bigger challenge for SpaceX, she said, is “maintaining the fast pace of innovation” while still executing the launch manifest for its customers.  “We don’t want to lose that pace of innovation … that sense of our genetics, how we grew up” while still providing reliable, predictable launches.

The panel was entitled “Executive Vision Discussion” and in addition to Shotwell featured NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, Lockheed Martin Vice President and General Manger for Civil Space Wanda Sigur, and Vice Commander of Air Force Space and Missile Systems Command Maj. Gen. Robert McMurry.  AIAA President and former Boeing executive Jim Albaugh served as moderator.

Albaugh asked all the panelists what they thought a comparable panel in 2035 would be talking about. 

Shotwell said she hoped they’d be discussing new propulsion systems “to take us out of the galaxy.”   

Lightfoot replied that he hoped they would be talking about the results of samples returned from Mars.   Separately he was asked “are we less than 20 years away from humans on Mars?”   NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has used that as a theme recently, insisting that, for the first time, it is a reality.   Lightfoot was more circumspect, saying he expected humans to be “around Mars at least” in the mid-2030s, but landing large masses has many challenges.

NASA’s “Journey to Mars” was a major theme for LIghtfoot and Sigur.  Sigur opened the panel by presenting a plaque to AIAA commemorating last December’s Orion test.  She and Lightfoot pointed to the difficulty in pursuing such a long term mission when the set of politicians who determine policy and budgets change every two years.

McMurry, on the other hand, quipped that sending people to Mars was not his focus.  His message was three-fold: resilience is the watchword of the day, but  “we have to figure out what resilience is” and how to measure it; protecting space systems from cybersecurity threats is important, but many space systems “are older than me” and the key is to focus not on how to prevent an attack, but how to cope with it when it happens; and the national security community needs to change its “mindset” in this new era of commercial spaceflight.

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