SpaceX to test upper stage endurance as part of Dragon launch


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Capitalism in space: SpaceX plans to perform a six hour orbital coast test of its Falcon 9 upper stage following the release of the Dragon cargo capsule tomorrow (scrubbed today due to high winds).

This is why the first stage will land on a drone ship rather than at Kennedy.

According to SpaceX the test is at the request of “other customers”, unnamed. The article adds this speculation:

Jensen says that the coast test will be performed for unspecified “other” customers, presumably referring to the US Air Force (USAF) and other commercial customers interested in direct-to-geostationary (GEO) launch services. Direct GEO launches require rocket upper stages to perform extremely long coasts in orbit, all while fighting the hostile vacuum environment’s temperature swings and radiation belts and attempting to prevent cryogenic propellant from boiling off or freezing solid. In simple terms, it’s incredibly difficult to build a reliable, high-performance upper stage capable of remaining fully functional after 6-12+ hours in orbit.

Although SpaceX said that the test was for “other” customers, that may well have been a cryptic way to avoid indicating that one such customer might be NASA itself. NASA is in the midst of a political battle for the Europa Clipper spacecraft’s launch contract, which is currently legally obligated to launch on NASA’s SLS rocket. Said rocket will likely cost on the order of >$2 billion per launch, meaning that simply using Falcon Heavy or Delta IV Heavy could save no less than ~$1.5 billion. Incredibly, that means that simply using a commercial launch vehicle could save NASA enough money to fund an entire Curiosity-sized Mars rover or even a majority of the cost of building a dedicated Europa lander. Such a launch would demand every ounce of Falcon Heavy’s performance, including a very long orbital coast.

These speculations could all be true. SpaceX might merely be doing what it always does, testing new engineering upgrades during operational missions. It will then be able to sell its rocket’s enhanced capability to all these customers.

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