SpaceX technicians are preparing for next week’s launch of the newly improved Falcon 9 rocket. The changes were designed to make the rocket safer for astronauts and to make it more affordable and easier for the company to recycle first stage boosters. The upgraded rocket is known as the Falcon 9’s Block 5 iteration. The brand new vehicle was recently transported to the Florida spaceport after a full-duration test-firing of its 9 Merlin 1D engines in McGregor, Texas. The Block 5 is planned for a May 4 launch. SpaceX also made sure that the rocket meets the human-rating requirements of NASA.
The company plans to conduct a hold-down engine firing of the rocket on April 30, 2018 at launch pad 39A. Takeoff from the launch pad will occur on May 4 after ground crews return the Falcon 9 to the company’s adjacent hangar. This will be done to attach the Bangabandhu 1 satellite to the rocket.
Hans Koenigsmann said that their test campaign in Texas was good. According to Koenigsmann, the Block 5 version of the Falcon 9 rocket summarizes everything that they learned on reusability. Whenever they mend a booster, they find things that give them lessons for the next block. They tried to combine these lessons into a booster than can fly, be mended and fly again without going through a lot of refurbishment.
At the base of the Block 5’s first stage is a shield material that is more heat resilient than the one used in the Falcon 9 rocket. The engines of the Block can generate more power and features a redesign that makes the engines easier and simpler to salvage on multiple flights. It will also include changes to fulfill NASA’s safety requirements for missions with astronauts heading toward the International Space Station.
SpaceX chief operating officer and president Gwynne Shotwell said that the Block 5 is mostly fueled by the upgrade needed to meet national security space launch and commercial crew program requirements. SpaceX engineers also made a permanent fix on the new Block 5 configuration to resolve a problem with turbine wheel cracks in the Merlin engine’s turbopump. The spacecraft is equipped with new helium tanks that are not prone to friction and pooling frozen liquid oxygen.
While the boosters based on previous Falcon 9 designs can be recycled 2 or 3 times, the Block 5’s first stage is designed to be used up to 10 times with marginal refurbishment between missions. The goal of the upgrade is to make the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket capable of flying a hundred times with refurbishment.