Spaceflight Insider

NASA green lights SpaceX use of pre-flown Falcon 9 first stages on CRS missions

Core 1039, the Falcon 9 first stage used for the CRS-12 mission, ignite the center Merlin 1D engine for the landing burn. The successful landing was the 14th for SpaceX. Photo Credit: Michael Deep / SpaceFlight Insider

Core 1039, the Falcon 9 first stage used for the CRS-12 mission, ignites the center Merlin 1D engine for the landing burn. The successful landing was the 14th for SpaceX. Photo Credit: Michael Deep / SpaceFlight Insider

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Nineteen. It only took nineteen successful landings either on one of the company’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ships (ASDS) or at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s “Landing Zone 1” (formerly Space Launch Complex 13) before NASA agreed to allow SpaceX to use its pre-flown boosters for cargo resupply runs to the International Space Station.

The 13th mission that SpaceX is slated to carry out under the $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract, which the company has with NASA, will use a “flight-proven” Falcon 9 first stage to provide the mission with its initial start from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 located in Florida. That mission is currently scheduled for launch on December 4, 2017, with a planned liftoff set for 2:53 p.m. EST (19:53 GMT).

The flight will be the first from SLC-40 since another Falcon 9 rocket exploded during a routine static-fire test on the launch pad on September 1, 2016.

With the Orb-3 and CRS-7 accidents highlighting the need for caution in terms of each multi-million dollar that is sent to the orbiting lab, NASA has been cautious in terms of the use of new systems delivering cargo to the ISS.

A report appearing on Popular Mechanics deemed NASA as being “notoriously” risk-averse. However, whenever the space agency or one of its contractors encounters an anomaly of any sort, the space agency undergoes critical reviews which could impact its budget, at least under most circumstances.

SpaceX has repeatedly demonstrated the viability of having the first stage of the company’s Falcon 9 rockets conduct controlled landings at either of the two landing sites noted above.

Meanwhile, the Hawthorne, California-based NewSpace firm is still eyeing an end-of-year maiden flight for their Falcon Heavy rocket. According to a report appearing on NASASpaceFlight, SpaceX hopes to conduct a static test fire of the triple-bodied Falcon Heavy sometime this December prior to the rocket’s inaugural flight taking place someday in late December (although that is not official according to sources within the company).

The first flight of the rocket was scheduled to take place as far back as 2012. As noted by the company’s CEO and Founder, Elon Musk, the massive new launch vehicle has encountered technical issues, notably the 27 Merlin 1D engines in the launcher’s first stage alone have delayed the first flight.




Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

The number of booster landings is irrelevant. Landing a booster is a nice party trick, but does absolutely nothing to prove it can fly again.

The only thing that will build NASA’s confidence in used boosters enough to put one of their payloads on it is reflying a used booster. I believe SpaceX has only done that a handful of times – maybe 3.

That is an entirely reasonable number, considering the costs if something goes pear shaped on launch.

I was thinking the same thing. Although I consider the booster landings rather more than party tricks. The details of the re-entry and landing bear a heavy responsibility for preserving the booster in reusable condition.

I’m in agreement with the premise that it’s a track record of successful reflight which is the key to NASA or any other customer being comfortable with reused boosters. I would however suggest that landing a booster after its primary mission is somewhat more than a “party trick”. This is a feat of engineering which was considered impossible not very long ago. The fact that it now seems routine is quite amazing.

Perhaps NASA (MSFC/JSC) has been looking at the actual refurbishment activities of the returned boosters? Used parts that weren’t thrown away after first use is one thing. Determining what is suitable for reuse and then actual refurbishment is more relevant to CRS. Not to mention validation & verification that the refinished system is good to go. Taking from the Popular Mechanics article language, and with no apologies, SpaceX is notoriously averse to well-integrated and autonomous SMA (Safety and Mission Assurance)

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