The president of SpaceX says any launch of its upgraded Falcon 9 rocket is still months away.
The Hawthorne, Calif.-based rocket company had been set to use a more powerful version of the rocket to launch an SES-9 communications satellite as a maiden payload. But now it’s uncertain when the rocket will be returned to service and who the customer will be.
That’s because of the explosion soon after launch of a Falcon 9 rocket in a June 28 resupply mission for the International Space Station. A formal verdict on the cause of the blast is awaited from SpaceX, which is leading a probe into the blast in cooperation with NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration. But a preliminary finding blamed a faulty strut from an unspecified vendor.
Speaking at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Space 2015 conference in Pasadena on Aug. 31, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said the continuing investigation into the Falcon 9 mission failure meant the rocket’s next launch was probably “a couple of months away.”
It’s been clear for a few weeks that serial optimist and company founder Elon Musk probably was being too hopeful when he said in July that the rocket might return to service in September. But Shotwell’s comments were the first confirmation of a delayed timeline.
“It’s taking more time than we originally envisioned to get back to flight,” she acknowledged.
Shotwell added: “Our next flight will be both the return to flight and the first flight of the upgraded vehicle. So whenever people ask me what keeps me up at night, it’s getting ready for that flight.”
It’s estimated that upgrades to the Falcon 9 will boost engine thrust sufficiently to deliver a 30 percent performance increase. Speculation among SpaceX-watchers of late has the company tinkering with three things: components and process directly tied to the June blast; other components that may have come under scrutiny as a result of the protracted investigation; and completing the upgrades of the Falcon 9 engine and related components.
Due to the delays with returning Falcon 9 to service, NASA recently expanded a contract with Russian space agency Roscosmos to allow for additional ISS resupply missions.
SpaceX and Dulles, Va.-based Orbital ATK are under contract to take over such missions from the Russians eventually, but Orbital also suffered a rocket failure last October and that investigation drags on as well.