Spaceflight Insider

SpaceX tests Falcon 9 ‘life leader’ at McGregor

Falcon 9 first stage JCSAT-14

In early May, the second Falcon 9 first stage to successfully land at sea on an ocean-going platform returned to Port Canaveral. Photo Credit: Jacques van Oene / SpaceFlight Insider

The Falcon 9 core that helped propel the JCSAT-14 satellite toward orbit before landing downrange on a landing platform has undergone a full-duration test firing. According to NASASpaceflight, the stage was taken to SpaceX’s test facility in McGregor, Texas, as part of the NewSpace firm’s evaluation of the rocket.

At 1:21 a.m. EDT (05:21 GMT) May 6, 2016, SpaceX launched their 24th Falcon 9 rocket. About nine minutes later, the first stage touched down on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) named Of Course I Still Love You.

It was the first successful “high-velocity” stage to be recovered. However, it was reported it was not expected to fly again after initial evaluations of the showed the booster took on the most damage the company expects their rockets to endure during reentry.

“Most recent rocket took max damage, due to [very] high entry velocity,” Elon Musk, the company’s founder and CEO, tweeted about nine days after the successful landing. “Will be our life leader for ground tests to confirm others are good.”

JCSAT-14 Scars

The returned F9-0024 stage returned with re-entry battle scars. Photo Credit: Michael Deep / SpaceFlight Insider

After being brought back to Port Canaveral, offloaded, and taken to the company’s hangar at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A), the booster joined a growing collection of recovered stages.

There have been a number of different ideas for verifying the integrity of a post-landed Falcon 9. They have ranged from up to 10 brief test fires at LC-39A to taking the stage to McGregor, where the company already test’s all their rockets and engines.

At least for the F9-0024 core, McGregor seems to have won out. According to NASASpaceflight, the stage was trucked to the facility and placed on the test stand. Around 8 p.m. EDT July 29 (00:00 GMT July 29), the stage performed a full duration firing of about 2 minutes 30 seconds to accrue data on the integrity of the rocket and engines.

This stage was made famous during landing, as it was not only the first to conduct a high-velocity landing but also the first to utilize a three-engine landing burn. Because the fuel margins of the booster are extremely tight for a mission delivering a payload to geostationary transfer orbit, as was the case for JCSAT-14, only a re-entry burn and landing burn were performed.

Additionally, to slow the rocket down as fast as possible, the stage used three engines, instead of one. This meant the booster spent less time fighting gravity and, therefore, used less fuel.

The F9-0024 core was the third-ever booster recovered by SpaceX. The company would go on to successfully land two more boosters—one on the ASDS and the other at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Landing Zone-1. The most recent ground landing took place after the CRS-9 launch.

In total, five boosters have been recovered: two on land and three at sea. At least one—F9-0023, which was recovered in April 2016—has been confirmed to refly later this Fall and carry a yet-to-be-disclosed customer’s payload.

All of this is part of SpaceX’s plan to reduce the cost of launching payloads into space. The strategy involves both ground landings as well as sea landings using and ASDS.

The next big milestone SpaceX is planning to accomplish is the launch of the company’s Falcon Heavy—currently scheduled for no earlier than November 2016. This rocket will utilize three Falcon 9 first stage core’s strapped together. The two side boosters, possibly even the central core, are expected to land back at Cape Canaveral.

As mentioned in a previous SpaceFlight Insider report, each booster that returns to land will produce three sonic booms for a total of nine if all three cores from a Falcon Heavy return to land.

Video courtesy of SpaceX


Derek Richardson is a student studying mass media with an emphasis in contemporary journalism at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. He is currently the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also writes a blog, called Orbital Velocity, about the space station. His passion for space ignited when he watched space shuttle Discovery leap to space on Oct. 29, 1998. He saw his first in-person launch on July 8, 2011 when the space shuttle launched for the final time. Today, this fervor has accelerated toward orbit and shows no signs of slowing down. After dabbling in math and engineering courses in college, he soon realized that his true calling was communicating to others about space exploration and spreading that passion.

Reader Comments

Dick Eagleson

Haven’t seen this anywhere else yet. Good “get,” gentlemen.

That “max damage” thing must refer to the paint job only. The “innards” seem to work fine.

Dennis Berube

Goooooo SpaceX and continue making history. Mars here we come!

So certain that everything will go right that they leave the three million dollar erection crane and the transport trailer parked right next to the test stand.

Congrats to SpaceX on a full duration firing of a recovered first stage. Yet another historic step towards reusability.

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