It was a good day. We accomplished all of our primary mission objectives: satellites were deployed successfully, our client/customers already receiving data from their satellites, in this case Cassiope. It was really a great day. We demonstrated a lot of new technology successfully including the Merlin 1-D engine, the new stage separation system, the much taller rocket which structurally performed very well, the 17 foot diameter fairing which separated successfully, no problems there. Overall, really great. There were a couple of optional things we were trying to do which were relight of the upper stage and of the boost stage. In the case of the upper stage relight, we initiated relight and the system encountered an anomaly and did not complete the relight. We believe we understand what that issue is and should have it addressed in time for the next flight of Falcon 9. Other than that, the ascent phase was excellent. That final burn was actually just a sideways burn, just to check propellant residuals.
Going to the boost stage, the boost stage actually initiated two burns. One was lighting three engines, doing a supersonic retro-propulsion. I believe the first time that any rocket stage has attempted to do a supersonic retro-propulsion. It lit 3 of the 9 engines and completed that maneuver well. Came back through atmospheric re-entry and survived coming back into the atmosphere without a problem. Previously our first stages always essentially exploded upon re-entering the atmosphere due to the extreme forces they encounter. As a result of the retro burn, we made it through. We controlled the stage with a fair bit of precision to a landing point with the center engine burn. That relight also went really well.
However, we exceeded the roll control authority of the attitude control thrusters. So in this case, the boost stage did not have landing gear which helps to essentially stabilize the stage like fins on an aircraft or empennage section on an aircraft. The stage actually ended up spinning to a degree that was greater than we could control with the gas thrusters and it centrifuged the propellant. It caused the boost stage to run out of propellant because of the centrifuging effect before hitting the water. It hit the water relatively hard. We recovered portions of the stage. The most important thing is that we now believe we have all the pieces of the puzzle. If you take the Grasshopper tests, where we were able to do a precision takeoff and landing of a Falcon 9 first stage and you combine it with the results from this flight where we were able to successfully transition from vacuum to hypersonic, through supersonic, through transonic and light the engines all the way through and control the stage all the way through. We have all the pieces necessary to achieve a full recovery of the boost stage. We are really excited about that. I think that we will achieve that next year. That's what actually got me the most excited about this flight. I think that now I have all of the pieces of the puzzle necessary to achieve full and rapid reusability of the Falcon 9 boost stage.
[Question on the restart of the second stage] Before deciding what the issue was, I think we want to have a bit more time to read the data, before coming to a conclusion. We essentially saw the engine initiate ignition get up to about 400 psi and then it encountered a condition that it didn't like. It may have been due to an extended spin start, maybe, but this is speculative. So it initiated an abort of the restart. But we have all of the data from the restart. So I am confident that we will be able to sort it out and address it before the next flight. It's nothing fundamental. On the test stand, we have restarted the Merlin 1-D engine in some cases dozens of times. We just have to iron out some slight differences of it operating in vacuum.
[Question on confidence of whether SES-8 mission can continue after the minor fixes] Yeah, absolutely.
[Question on the duration of the burns] The ascent burns, basically the first stage burn and the second stage burn were all full duration and those actually went likely slightly better than expected. The second stage hit its target velocity vector a few seconds early which means that the stage was actually performing a little better than expected, probably higher specific impulse than anticipated. So the only anomalies that we are aware of thus far are the second stage restart where we turn the stage sideways and we are going to do a propellant depletion burn and the third firing of the first stage when it centrifuged the propellant just before hitting the ocean.
[Question about launching from Vandenberg] It actually went better than expected. It was incredibly smooth. The ascent was picture perfect. I stood outside watching it, in full, just before stage separation and such an incredibly clear day too if you were watching it first hand. You could actually see the whole rocket go to space, I mean literally exit the atmosphere. When you looked at the smoke trail, it's more like a water trail actually, you can see where the atmosphere ends because the engine keeps firing in the same way and then suddenly the water vapor trail ends and that's where the atmosphere ends. Well, it doesn't end but it transitions to ratified gas. Florida's hazy and you can't see what's going on. This was ultra-clear.
[Question on the apogee and perigee] I'll give you some numbers but I would just check them with my team before saying that there are definitely accurate. I think that we are at 327km perigee and 1495km apogee. But let's just double check that before, because I'm kind of just quoting off the cuff here.
[Question on performance hit for attempting landing the first stage] We effectively lose, in terms of performance... It really depends on what we want to do with the stage if we were to do an ocean landing or a return to launch site landing. If we do an ocean landing, the performance hit is actually quite small at maybe in the order of 15%. If we do a return to launch site landing, it's probably double that, it's more like a 30% hit (i.e., 30% of payload lost).
[Question on SES Launch and reuse] We believe we're on track to launch SES next month. There might be a few extra weeks just to make sure that we are confident about the second stage restart. From a hardware stand point, we are ready to go with SES next month. And then with a steady cadence of vehicles thereafter. The SES rocket, the Falcon 9 rocket that will launch SES, is actually at Cape Canaveral in the hangar right now. It's the first time that we have actually had rockets at both launch sites in SpaceX history. It's also actually the first time that we had both stages firing at the same time. We had the upper stage continuing its orbit burn and then the first stage doing a re-entry burn.
As far as the safety aspect of the return to launch site of the first stage that's part of why we want to do it first in the ocean just to make sure that things will be fine. For any landing area that we would have, the landing ellipse, the sort of error that the stage could encounter would be an unpopulated region. So we would aim to have a landing site that's unpopulated with a radius of a couple of miles (which can be achieved in Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg).
[Question about the purpose of restarting the upper stage] It's rare to do a deorbit burn of the upper stage, that's unusual in the rocket world, but we probably would have the ability to do that in some cases. For low Earth orbit missions the stage would encounter a small amount of atmospheric drag and eventually reenter and burn up. For the commercial missions to geostationary orbit we do a shorter coast than what we just did but we coast for a little bit and then restart once you get close to the equator. In that scenario, restart is important for those missions. We can technically do them without a restart, we can do them as a single burn, but it means the satellite has to do more work to change the plane of its orbit to equatorial. So we can do it either way, but the one which is the minimum work for the satellite does require restart. But, as I mentioned, we've restarted the Merlin, we've taken a single Merlin engine and restarted it literally dozens of times, so it's not a question of can this engine restart, we just need to iron out what were the differences between restarting in vacuum and microgravity verses restarting on the ground.
[Question on the recovery of the first stage] The next two launches, we are going to gather data from the first stage but we are not going to attempt to recover it because we committed to give the customers on the next two flights maximum performance of the rocket. When we first saw these flights, we didn't reserve enough performance to recover the first stage. So we don't expect to recover the first stage the next two flights but we do expect to get good re-entry data again. The next recovery attempt for the first stage will be the fourth flight of this version, so three flights from now.
[Question about the manifest] We have two geostationary flights: SES and Thaicom and then we have got the orbital resupply mission for NASA, the CRS flight and it's on that CRS flight that we are going to try to bring the first stage back. We are hoping to put the landing legs on that stage. It's still debatable whether at that stage, we will land with landing legs in the ocean or land with landing legs on land. Either way, we do want it to have the landing legs on.
[Question on the changes to the Falcon 9] The most revolutionary thing about the new Falcon 9 is the potential ability to recover the boost stage which is almost three-quarters of the cost of the rocket. That's the most important thing about it. There are other improvements we have made to increase design reliability. For example, with stage separation, we have gone from nine attach pinnings and three pistons to just three pistons with integrated attach pinnings. So it goes from twelve failure points down to just three on the stage separation. I think that's an improvement in reliability. It was also the first time that we were flying the 17 foot diameter fairing. So proving that that fairing works is very important for our satellite customers. That fairing is capable of taking the biggest satellites in the world.
And then of course, we proved out the Merlin 1D engine and having a much sort of longer rocket which has more complicated bending modes and making sure that the control system can deal with all of that. So we accomplished a lot today. I am really happy about the results. We have a little bit of work to do obviously. But all in all I think that it's been a great day.
[Question about the landing legs on the third CRS flight] Yes that's the plan (i.e., to have landing legs). We are not going hold up that flight for landing legs. So if landing legs end up being delayed for any reason then we won't hold up the flight for that. But the full plan is to have landing legs on that mission. The schedule for that mission is mostly governed by upgrades to the Dragon spacecraft. We have an upgraded avionics system and we are able to provide a lot more power to NASA for powered cargo. It essentially triples, I think, the amount of powered cargo that NASA can have. So I think that's what is driving that schedule. It's a high priority for us to get that mission launched as soon as we can. It looks like probably sometime in February most likely.
[Question about landing on land and FAA licensing for landing] We have actually been working with Air Force range safety and the FAA to identify landing locations at Cape Canaveral and we have identified a few. I don't think that we are quite ready to say what those locations are but they are kind of out on the tip of Cape Canaveral, on the eastern most tip of Cape Canaveral. It's great working with both Air Force range safety and the FAA. They have actually been quite supportive of the whole thing. You need a (FAA) license and we expect to get it.
[Question about what parts of the first stage were recovered and whether they have video of the re-entry] We actually do have some great video of the re-entry. It's coming back. It's actually on the boat or boats, I should say. So we don't have that. We should be able to post that maybe that later this week. There's some pretty cool video. In terms of components, I think we have... Bear in mind this is coming from: there is a fast boat and then there is a bigger slow boat and then it goes to mission control and then to me. There is like four levels of broken tails going on here. Take this with a grain of salt. But the latest I heard is that they were able to recover the inter-stage, a number of the components from the engine bay, and some of the composite overwrap pressure vessels. That's all I know at this point. There may be more.
[Question on the advantages of being able to launch from both the Cape and Vandenberg] I think that the most important thing that being able to launch from Vandenberg and the Cape gives us is the ability to reach any orbit. So we can go to any inclination at this point and for mid-inclination missions as you mention, like going to the space station orbit, we could conceivably do space station missions from either the Cape or Vandenberg. Our default plan is to that from the Cape. But if there was, let's say some terrible storm at the Cape, a force 5 hurricane or something, that damaged the Cape launch facilities, we could in an emergency transition to launching and re-supplying the space station from Vandenberg. I think that it's good to have that optionality. We are continuing forward with a third launch site which is likely to be Texas but we are still waiting for all of the final approvals. Within the Cape, we are going to be expanding our activities and hopefully, you know once this sort of silliness around Pad 39A is resolved (chuckles), hopefully, we will be able to have two launch pads at the Cape. That will enable us to focus our Air Force and intelligence missions on Pad 40 and kind of civil space missions for NASA (cargo resupply, astronauts transport and science missions) from Pad 39A. Hopefully, that's what happens there.
[Question on the impact of this version of Falcon 9 on the Falcon Heavy] It (i.e. the Falcon 9 version 1.1) definitely informs the Heavy development. The Falcon Heavy is essentially the Falcon 9 with two additional boost stages as strap on boosters. So it's the same engines that we use, very similar airframe, the airframe will be slightly optimized because of the fact that it is a side booster but the avionics will be the same as the Falcon 9 first stage. How we control the whole thing will be very very similar. Hopefully, once the three boost stages separate, they will come back and land individually and they will behave just like the Falcon 9 boost stage. All three of them will come back hopefully and land on three separate pads and we'll join them back together for a future flight and launch them.
[Questions on timeframe of SES and Thaicom Missions and of Falcon Heavy testing in McGregor] We are expecting to complete the SES and Thaicom missions in the next 2 to 3 months. SES hopefully in about a month and then Thaicom, a month or two after that and then the NASA CRS launch which is when we would hopefully have the landing legs on by early next year. In terms of (Falcon) Heavy testing, we are just finishing the Falcon Heavy test stand at McGregor and putting the final touches on that. One thing that I should mention is that even though Falcon Heavy will be three times the thrust of Falcon 9, it will actually probably be quieter for people in Waco or in surrounding areas because the Falcon 9 test stand is up on a tall tripod whereas the Falcon Heavy stand is buried in the ground. It sort of goes down. So there will probably be less sound transmitted even though it's three times the thrust. That will be a very exciting test firing to watch and we are hopefully going to have one of those done, I am guessing, in the second quarter next year.
[Question on the Damage on the Vandenberg Pad] Actually, the launch site looks like it's in great shape with the exception of some air conditioning ducts that clearly need to be replaced. The fairing air condition ducts got zapped but the strong back and the erector and the stand itself look like they're in great shape. We'll improve the robustness of the air conditioning lines and we'll obviously do a complete checkup to see, you know, is there is anything else that requires additional heat shielding or blast shielding of some kind. Just looking at the video, it looks pretty good. I'm not sure when our next flight is from Vandenberg, I've been so focused on this flight that I haven't been paying much attention to anything that isn't super-near term. It's certainly a huge relief to have successfully delivered CASSIOPE to orbit. It's been weighing on me quite heavily. I'd have to look at our manifest. Sorry, my apologies for not having that information.
[Question on the recovery of the first stage during CRS flights] Our goal is to recover the first stage on all CRS flights and really on most flights. The next two flights are somewhat of an exception. When we negotiated these deals, we didn't have much bargaining power. It was before we obviously flown this version of the Falcon 9 successfully. So we kind of agreed to give up all performance on the rocket and not reserve anything for reusability. But going into the future, with future contracts, with a few exceptions, we have reserved enough performance to recover the stage. It's not just the CRS flights, it should be most flights after these next two (flights). In terms when we actually re-fly the stage, it's going to depend on what condition the stage is in and obviously getting customers comfortable with that. So it's difficult to say when would actually re-fly it. If things go super well then we would be able to re-fly a Falcon 9 stage before the end of next year and that's our aspiration.
[Question on pad abort test] We're getting a little offtopic but I'll answer this question. I don't want to go too much into the crew Dragon, or Dragon version 2. We'll definitely do a press event around that, just not today. The launch abort test is planned for next year, approximately Q2. That should be a really exciting test. A pad abort test means you sort of mount it (Dragon) as though it's on the rocket, for those that don't know, and then you fire the escape thrusters, the Super Draco thrusters and it just bolts out of there at 6G. So it's going to go like a bullet and then come back and land. That should be exciting. Probably Q2 next year. There is a whole series of additional tests. At some point, we want to do, kind of a big public unveiling of Dragon version 2.0. We just want to coordinate with NASA obviously. It looks pretty cool, I think. It's meaningfully different from Dragon version 1.
Thanks everyone and I think, many exciting days ahead. We'll keep you informed as there are new developments.