A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster has been spotted traveling eastbound through Wilcox, AZ, indicating a shipment from the company’s Hawthorne, CA rocket factory to its McGregor, TX facilities for hot-fire acceptance testing.
Captured by Reddit user codercotton on October 28th, this first stage (S1) is headed to Texas at the same time as SpaceX’s facilities appear to be wrapping up an extended test campaign with the Falcon 9 rocket stages that will launch an uncrewed Crew Dragon on the upgraded spacecraft’s first trip into orbit.
The team at our rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas completed a static fire test last night of the Falcon 9 booster that will launch SpaceX’s first demonstration mission for @NASA’s Commercial Crew Program – one step closer to flying astronauts to the @Space_Station! pic.twitter.com/iDYNoamCvU
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) October 27, 2018
This duo of Falcon 9 appearances highlights an unusual few months of what is often called “core spotting” by close followers of SpaceX. Typically, SpaceX ships and hot-fire tests a Falcon 9 booster every month, give or take roughly two weeks. It’s clear, however, that the imminent start of Crew Dragon launches under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) has created some unique requirements with respect to both booster, upper stage, and individual engine testing in Texas.
For example, Falcon 9 B1051 – a new booster assigned to Crew Dragon’s first uncrewed demonstration launch (DM-1) – appears to have been testing in McGregor for the better part of three months, apparently including multiple hot-fire tests of the rocket. Prior to Commercial Crew, a nominal round of acceptance testing in McGregor would be expected to last between two and four weeks between arrival and departure. As such, spending three months or more in McGregor is very unusual, particularly for a brand-new booster like B1051.
B1051’s extended period of testing can likely be traced back to two main factors. At a more technical level, B1051 could be the first Falcon 9 Block 5 booster to have SpaceX’s upgraded COPVs (carbon-overwrapped pressure vessels) – bottles designed to hold helium and nitrogen at pressures around 5000 psi (35 MPa) – fully integrated on both the first and second stages. Perhaps not a major technical hurdle for SpaceX, this milestone is undoubtedly one of NASA’s most myopic and obsessive mountains-out-of-molehills in terms of the intense ‘certification’ burdens dumped on SpaceX over the course of CCP. SpaceX has apparently spent at least 1.5 years systematically designing, testing to destruction, and redesigning an in-house COPV, to the extent that CEO Elon Musk described the updated design as “by far the most advanced pressure vessel ever developed by humanity … It’s nuts.”
Juggling Falcon 9 tests
Despite the extreme lengths of testing apparently required for the Falcon 9s that will launch Crew Dragon, it can be concluded with some certainty that SpaceX has still managed to fit in normal tests of a number of non-Crew boosters, upper stages, and Merlins. According to the above SpaceX tweet, B1051 is clearly still in Texas and is unlikely to leave for Florida until November (several days are needed to prepare a booster for transport). However, a different booster was spotted heading from California to Texas just this morning.
Further, Falcon 9 booster B1054 – nearly complete and stationed in front of the only real exit route – was spotted in SpaceX’s Hawthorne factory in mid-September, while an unknown first stage was caught departing the factory for Texas roughly two weeks later. Finally, at the same time as the mystery booster was being trucked to Texas, an even more mysterious Falcon 9 – visibly sooty and thus flight-proven – was spotted inside one of SpaceX Hawthorne’s separate refurbishment hangars, with at least three Merlins removed from its octaweb. Perhaps this is somehow related to the Falcon 9 booster (missing four of nine Merlins) headed East on October 28th.
Finally, according to a member of the /r/SpaceX subreddit, a separate Falcon 9 booster apparently arrived at SpaceX’s Vandenberg, CA launch facilities on October 26th, perhaps Falcon 9 B1046.3 preparing to launch for the third time for Spaceflight’s SSO-A rideshare mission, NET November 19.
A fresh block 5 booster departing SpaceX HQ! #falcon9 #oversizeload #rocketroad @SpaceX @Teslarati @w00ki33 @13ericralph31 pic.twitter.com/ZKLHnY6iZT
— TomCross (@_TomCross_) October 6, 2018
As with most things SpaceX, definitive answers are exceedingly rare when it comes to day-to-day operations like Falcon 9 transportation and even official confirmation of the particular boosters involved with any given launch. Understandably, these more esoteric details are probably treated as “need-to-know” only, and while I and many others would love to know, we certainly don’t *need* to know.
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