NASA’s 2019 budget proposal was filled with a few surprises, including the revelation that it had certified the SpaceX Flacon 9 for certain categories for science missions. The report noted that SpaceX had successfully attained Category 2 certification in January of 2018, as required by the Launch Services Program. This certification is specific to the Falcon 9 rocket “Full Thrust.”
This type of certification covers missions that are deemed to be “medium risk.” In order to qualify, the vehicle must have had between one and three consecutive missions NASA deems successful. SpaceX had to achieve this certification before they are permitted to launch the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission.
Certification was not guaranteed, and its inclusion did surprise a few individuals. This was due to the fact that it was still pending as of late last year. A member of the House space subcommittee warned the Accountability Office that SpaceX may need more time before it could be considered fully qualified. Additionally, another representative raised concerns in light of the vehicle’s launch failure in June of 2015.
Now that certification has been achieved, the Falcon 9 is clear to launch TESS as previously anticipated. While this launch had originally been scheduled for March 20, 2018, NASA has pushed it back to April 16 at the earliest. A spokesperson for NASA explained that this was done at the behest of SpaceX. The company wanted to ensure they met the launch service requirements and requested more time to ensure the spacecraft is ready. It is currently at the Kennedy Space Center, awaiting its payload.
The Launch Service Program has also been investigating the Orbital ATK Antares launch vehicle, to determine if it is ready for certification. Other vehicles awaiting certification include United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan, Blue Origin’s New Glenn, and Orbital ATK’s Next Generation Launch.