SpaceX gets McGregor approval to test Falcon Heavy

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Posted: Wednesday, July 17, 2013 12:01 am

The city of McGregor has amended its lease with SpaceX to allow the company to test “future technologies” at McGregor’s industrial park — including possibly the Falcon Heavy, which reportedly will become the world’s most powerful private rocket — city and SpaceX officials confirmed.

“The basic change is that more thrust will be allowed than under the original lease,” McGregor City Manager Kevin Evans said.

SpaceX and McGregor also reached on agreement on how late crews can perform rocket tests, some of which can be heard for miles.

Tests on the Falcon Heavy would have to end by sunset, while those of the Falcon 9 could continue until 10 p.m., two hours earlier than the previous deadline of midnight.

With 3.8 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, the Falcon Heavy will have the ability to carry satellites or interplanetary spacecraft weighing more than 53 metric tons to low Earth orbit.

That is nearly twice the payload of NASA’s space shuttle, whose use has drawn to a close.

SpaceX communications director Christina Ra would not say when testing of the Falcon Heavy would begin, calling it a “proprietary matter.”

But the California-based company already has landed its first customer — Intelsat, a Washington, D.C.-based provider of satellite services worldwide — for the new rocket.

Ra, in a phone interview, said SpaceX wanted more options at its McGregor-based Rocket Motor Testing Zone “because it is our main rocket facility with an ever-growing footprint. There are a lot of projects, future technologies, that we will be working on there.”

Evans said SpaceX employs more than 200 people at its complex in McGregor, a figure that Ra confirmed.

SpaceX in recent weeks has been testing the Falcon 9-R — a next-generation version of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket, with the “R” standing for reusable — in a series of louder-than-normal firings that began in May. The company also has been testing individual engines for the Dragon orbiter and Falcon rockets.

The Falcon 9 has nine Merlin engines in its first stage, while the Heavy will have three nine-engine cores, Ra said.

Like the Falcon 9 — which made it to orbit in an October 2012 despite losing an engine — the Heavy is designed to tolerate the failure of several engines and still complete its mission, according to the SpaceX website. A disabled engine is shut down and the remaining engines compensate for it.

“Anticipating potential astronaut transport needs, the Heavy also is designed to meet NASA human (safety) rating standards,” SpaceX reports.

The Falcon Heavy will have commercial, civil and national security applications, Ra said, adding that customers will pay $81 million to $135 million per launch, depending on the weight of the payload and the rocket’s destination.

That is about twice the price of a Falcon 9 launch, Ra said.

On Sunday, SpaceX test fired the core stage of the next-generation Falcon 9-R rocket that will be used to launch Canada’s CASSIOPE space weather satellite in September from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., Ra confirmed in an email.

She said the Falcon 9 will have the same updated design on all flights moving forward, including continued supply trips to the International Space Station by the company’s Dragon cargo ship under a contract with NASA.

SpaceX also is flying its Grasshopper rocket as a testbed for technology in the Falcon 9-R, whose stages are eventually planned to return to the launch site for reuse instead of becoming space junk or breaking up as they re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere.

Company founder and CEO Elon Musk has said that early Falcon 9-R launches will test that return capability by trying to bring the first stage back to an ocean splashdown.

SpaceX has signed a three-year lease for land and facilities at Spaceport America near Las Cruces, N.M., for higher and farther Grasshopper flights, but also will continue Grasshopper tests in McGregor.

Tribune-Herald staff writer Joseph Abbott contributed to this story.

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