We are now only a few months away from having the inaugural Falcon 9 launch vehicle on its launch pad at Cape Canaveral and ready to fly! The actual launch date will depend on weather and how we fit into the overall launch schedule at the Cape, so that is a little harder to predict. Based on prior experience, launch could be anywhere from one to three months after Falcon 9 is integrated at the Cape in November.
This initial test flight will carry our Dragon spacecraft qualification unit, providing us with valuable aerodynamic and performance data for the Falcon 9 configuration that will fly on the following COTS and CRS missions for NASA. The second Falcon 9 flight will be the first flight of Dragon under the NASA COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) program, where we will demonstrate Dragon's orbital maneuvering, communication and reentry capabilities.
[b]First Stage Engines[/b]
Test firing the Merlin Vacuum development engine in McGregor, Texas.
With twenty-two Falcon 9 flights currently listed on our launch manifest, we're continuing to ramp up all manufacturing lines. The pace of engine production continues to grow, with recent efforts focused on the nine Merlin engines, and one Merlin Vacuum engine for the upcoming inaugural Falcon 9 flight, as well as an identical set of Merlins for the second Falcon 9 flight. Together, the nine Merlin engines produce over 1 million pounds of thrust, and consume over half a million pounds of fuel and oxidizer in just under three minutes as they push the Falcon 9 out of Earth's atmosphere and into orbit.
[b]Second Stage Engines[/b]
At our test facility in McGregor, Texas, testing continues on the Merlin Vacuum engine which will power the Falcon 9 second stage to orbit. Qualification testing was completed last week, and will be followed closely by acceptance testing of the first Merlin Vacuum flight engine for the inaugural launch.
The nine flight-ready Merlin first stage engines were integrated with the truss structure that evenly distributes their thrust upwards into the first stage tank. Above the truss, the carbon composite skirt houses the plumbing system that distributes the liquid oxygen (LOX) and RP-1 fuel to the engines.
Weighing in at over 17,000 lbs, the thrust assembly and Merlin engines represent over half the first stage's dry mass.
A pair of cranes rotates the entire assembly to horizontal, and then lowers it onto the shipping frame.
The entire system was assembled and checked out in our Hawthorne facility, and then shipped to Texas for integration with the first stage propellant tanks, which recently completed proof and leak testing there. The F9 second stage has been shipped to Texas and is being prepped for structural testing which will begin this week, followed closely by stage separation testing.
Elsewhere in our Hawthorne plant, the launch vehicle for the second Falcon 9 flight is well underway. On the Friction Stir Welding (FSW) machine, the first stage tank passed the mid-point with the completion of the fuel tank welding. Additional barrel sections and one more dome will complete the LOX tank. The primary tank structure for the second flight's second stage has already been fabricated and is being processed next to the second stage for the first flight.
Note that the first and second stages use a common architecture such as the same 3.7 meter (12 foot) diameter aluminum-lithium barrels and domes, and we manufacture them utilizing the same systems and tooling. This approach greatly reduces overhead, inventory and production costs, and simultaneously contributes to increased reliability. These are essential aspects of how SpaceX improves reliability and lowers the cost of access to space.
The vital electronics and software systems that will operate the Falcon 9 first flight have been integrated and completed final testing, as have our Dragon communications units destined for installation aboard the ISS. SpaceX's COTS UHF Communications Unit is scheduled to fly aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis on STS-129 this coming November.
The COTS UHF Communications Unit system, shown here prior to delivery to NASA.
The Cape Canaveral launch site build-up and activation processes continues at Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40), our launch pad located a few miles south of the Space Shuttle launch sites on the Florida ‘space coast’. We have completed the new LOX ground handling and storage systems that will supply our Falcon 9 vehicles.
And we are finishing up numerous other systems that support safe and efficient launch operations. Other vital systems now in process include support for the storage and handling of RP-1 fuel, as well as nitrogen, helium, and the water deluge systems that help protect the pad and vehicle from the significant levels of thermal and acoustic energy created during launch.