SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has published what appears to be the first official photo of the company’s newest Falcon 9 upgrade, known as Block 5. This particular booster is the first Falcon 9 Block 5 to be shipped to SpaceX’s launch facilities and is currently aiming for its first launch sometime next week after a May 4 static fire test, perhaps its first of anywhere from 10 to 100 operational missions.
Designed with reliability and reusability front and center, the booster upgrades have focused on additional thermal protection around the octaweb and interstage, reusable legs capable of retracting after recovery, titanium grid fins, and dramatic improvements to the heatshield at the base of the rocket. On the reliability side of upgrades, SpaceX has completed dozens of Merlin 1D static fires to qualify a turbopump redesign requested by NASA, as well as an upgraded COPV designed to guard against the type of anomaly that catastrophically destroyed Amos-6 and Falcon 9 in September 2016. A huge amount of work has also been done to improve and redesign aspects of Falcon 9 for easier (and cheaper) production and refurbishment, most notably replacing the welded octaweb structure with a bolted alternative likely to relieve many headaches and many days of octaweb weld checks.
Aside from the biggest and most obvious changes, Block 5 is host to dozens or hundreds of additional tweaks and updates, a reflection of SpaceX’s pursuit of continuous improvement. Per SpaceX’s Vice President of Manufacturing Andy Lambert, SpaceX has “never built any two vehicles identically”, and Block 5 continues that tradition. Many Block 5 features have, however, already been flight-tested and optimized on previous Block 4 launches, including the octaweb heatshield, titanium gridfins, and minor aerodynamic tweaks to the second stage.
The rocket is set to conduct its inaugural launch sometime next week – although the current schedule has SpaceX on May 7, Bangladeshi media have indicated that that date will slip a few days to the right after a handful of delays to the booster’s static fire. Tasked with lofting the country’s first geostationary communications satellite, Bangabandhu-1, B1046 will carry the 3500 kg spacecraft on its way to a high-energy geostationary transfer orbit before separating from the second stage and heading back to earth. The drone ship ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ and tugboat Rachel were spied departing from Port Canaveral at around the same time as Falcon 9 rolled out, and they will travel several hundred miles into the Atlantic to catch the pathfinder booster.
Tug boat Rachel has left Port Canaveral with OCISLY ahead of the SpaceX Bangabandhu mission on May 7th. The launch will be the first to feature a Block V Falcon 9.
— Michael Baylor (@nextspaceflight) May 3, 2018
Teslarati photographer Tom Cross will be on hand to capture the historic rocket’s static fire and launch over the next week or so, as well as the first Block 5 recovery on OCISLY if all goes as planned. Failure is always a possibility when flight-testing significantly upgraded technological systems, rockets especially, but SpaceX likely has far less tolerance for failure in the case of Block 5 – any problems with the rocket will almost invariably mothball into NASA concerns and investigations as the company nears its first crewed launches. Fingers crossed for the successful inaugural launch and landing of Falcon 9 Booster 1046.
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