SpaceX will be making modifications to its Falcon 9 rocket based on what the company learned from re-igniting the engines on the vehicle it landed. That's according to SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell, who spoke about the state of the company today at the Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Wasington, DC. Shotwell didn't specify what those modifications will be, but said the changes will make the vehicle "even more robust" for its ascent into space.
In December, SpaceX famously landed its Falcon 9 after launching it into space. CEO Elon Musk said that the rocket wouldn't fly again, but the company would do tests on it to see if it was capable of a second mission. In January, the company fired up the engines on that rocket to see if the hardware still worked properly after traveling to and from space. Musk said that overall, the data from the test looked good, but one of the engines showed "thrust fluctuations," possibly because it ingested some debris.
SpaceX could reduce the amount of refurbishment needed between missions
The whole point of SpaceX landing and reusing its rockets is to save money on manufacturing costs. But if the Falcon 9 needs numerous inspections and refurbishment between landings and follow-up launches, that's going to require extra money, lessening the cost savings of reusability. By modifying the rocket based on what the company learned from the first landing, SpaceX could potentially reduce the amount of refurbishment needed between missions. Shotwell said that the company hopes to fly a reused and refurbished Falcon 9 later this year.
SpaceX also has a couple other substantial goals for 2016. The company will be conducting an in-flight abort test for the Commercial Crew Program; that's the NASA initiative that tasks private companies with building spacecraft to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station. An in-flight abort test will demonstrate if SpaceX's Dragon Crew Capsule can be saved during an in-flight rocket failure. The Dragon has eight SuperDraco engines embedded in its hull, which can fire up and carry the capsule away from a disintegrating rocket.
SpaceX also plans this year to conduct the first test flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket, a larger variant of the Falcon 9 that has two additional boosters strapped to its sides. Like the Falcon 9, the Falcon Heavy is also meant to be reusable at some point. However, its recovery will be much more complicated, since it will require landing three boosters instead of just one. Shotwell said SpaceX will post updated performance numbers for the Falcon Heavy within the next few weeks.
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