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Safety Approvals Hold Up Debut of Falcon 9 Rocket

Before a new launch vehicle is cleared for liftoff from CapeCanaveral, federal regulators and Air Force officials meticulously go over therocket's safety systems to verify the mission will pose no danger to thepublic.

The process is in motion again as SpaceX prepares to launchits first Falcon9 rocket, a thoroughly-tested but unproven launcher that could blast off asearly as next month.

The Air Force 45th Space Wing and the Federal AviationAdministration are still reviewing paperwork on the new rocket, which iscurrently on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral for several days of ground tests.

Because of the continuing safetychecks, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk says the earliest launch couldoccur is around March 22, although the 154-foot-tall rocket could be readybefore then.

"The rocket itself should be readyto launch by early March," Musk told Spaceflight Now. "We arestill working through the schedule for finishing the qualification tests of theflight termination system and receiving final range approval. SpaceX only haslimited control over that schedule, so it is difficult to estimate thecompletion date accurately."

Musk said launch may not occur until April or May.

The flight termination system, or FTS, would destroy therocket if problems developed causing the fuel-laden booster to veer off course.

The Falcon 9's destruct system features linear-shapedcharges along two sides of the rocket, according to SpaceX officials.

"A way to get through the range safety process fast isto use most of the traditional equipment," said Tim Buzza, the Falcon 9launch director. "It's in their experience base, and you're not trying toget too many new ideas on the table."

Company officials say there are some unique components inthe Falcon 9 flight termination system, including new parts vendors, but thelauncher carries a standard command receiver and pyrotechnic charges. Therocket has an auto destruct feature and can receive commands from a rangesafety officer on the ground, senior officials told Spaceflight Now.

Workers won't make final connections of the ordnance chargeson the Falcon9 until it completes fueling and engine tests in the coming days.

SpaceX's smaller Falcon 1 rocket, a predecessor to themedium-class Falcon 9, has launched five times from a diminutive island atKwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean. The launch site's remote locationaway from civilians and valuable property means the Falcon 1's flighttermination system carries no ordnance, instead ordering the rocket's enginesto shut down if problems develop.

The so-called thrust termination technique is widely used onRussian rockets, but the Air Force requires a more robust system for launchesin the continental United States.

New rockets often undergo closer scrutiny, and the Falcon 9is no different, Air Force and FAA officials told Spaceflight Now.

Before previous inaugural flights, the Air Force hasapproved the safetysystems of new rockets just days before launch.

The Air Force Eastern Range oversees launch operations atCape Canaveral Air Force Station, providing tracking, communications and safetyservices for all missions originating from the Space Coast. Headquartered atPatrick Air Force Base just south of Cape Canaveral, the 45th Space Wingmanages the range operations.

"Based on [the] status of documentation provided bySpaceX to date, Wing Safety reviews are approximately two-thirdscomplete," said Col. Loretta Kelemen, the 45th Space Wing's chief ofsafety. "We are still waiting on a significant amount of data from testingcurrently being performed by SpaceX and their suppliers as well as some finalflight termination system design documentation and final launch site operatingprocedures."

Air Force officials say their primary interest is the safetyof the public, base personnel and nearby launch facilities.

"The Wing's red line in the sand is safety. We can'ttake a great risk in this area and must ensure compliance with all safetyrequirements," Kelemen said in a reponse to written questions.

The Falcon 9 launch site is at Complex 40, situated halfwaybetween other operational pads supporting Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets. NASA'sspace shuttle launch pads are also a few miles north of Complex 40.

Because the Falcon 9 is a commercial rocket, the FAA alsohas jurisdiction in granting a launch license after conducting its own reviewof the booster's safety systems, according to Ken Wong, manager of the FAA'scommercial space licensing and safety division.

The FAA's analysis also accounts for policy, environmentaland financial implications, while the Air Force's focus is on safety.

"There are certain differences, but in general, theobjective is to have common launch safety requirements [with the AirForce]," Wong said.

"I would say the major part that we really focus on isthe safety review," Wong said in an interview. "What that entails isthe applicant, in the their licensing application to us, they need todemonstrate that they can safely conduct their proposed launch."

Wong said the FAA is "actively evaluating"SpaceX's license application. By statute, the FAA has 180 days to rule on alicense application, according to Wong.

"It's still in the evaluation process within theFAA," Wong said. "At this time, we don't see any major issues, butthe determination hasn't been made yet."

Although Wong declined to reveal details of the status ofthe Falcon 9 application, he said the destruct system is receiving the mostattention.

"Every time there's an application, we review theflight safety critical systems, especially for the newer vehicles," Wongsaid. "A major flight safety critical system is the flight terminationsystem. If the vehicle were to go off course, you definitely want the flighttermination system to be functioning."

"For certain companies that have been flying a longtime, perhaps the review of the flight termination system may not need to be asin-depth as someone who has flown a lot before or has received a license fromus before," Wong said.

The Air Force did not clear the flight termination system onNASA's Ares 1-X test rocket until four days before the first launch attemptlast October, according to Kelemen.

Range approvals for the inaugural launches of the AirForce-supported Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets came 13 days and 16 days beforeliftoff, respectively, Kelemen said. Both vehicles entered service in 2002.

All three boosters ultimately flew successfully, and theflight termination system was not activated on those missions.

"The way we treat SpaceX is no different than otherapplicants in the past," Wong said.

According to Kelemen, Air Force policies require reviews ofdocumentation to be completed within 45 days after they are submitted. Butrange officials have typically been reviewing SpaceX's documentation within oneor two weeks, Kelemen said.

The Air Force must first approve the design of"hazardous and safety critical systems" through documentationprovided by the launch operator. Once the designs are approved, the systems —including the FTS — must face performance margin testing and be installed tomeet Air Force guidelines, according to Kelemen.

Range officials are also responsible for verifying theflight termination system is functioning properly during the final countdown.

"Wing Safety expects to provide a rapid response whenthe required data is provided," Kelemen wrote. "We are committed todoing whatever we can to help SpaceX and all our range customers succeed."

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Stephen Clark is the Editor of Spaceflight Now, a web-based publication dedicated to covering rocket launches, human spaceflight and exploration. He joined the Spaceflight Now team in 2009 and previously wrote as a senior reporter with the Daily Texan. You can follow Stephen's latest project at (opens in new tab) and on Twitter (opens in new tab).