SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket does not have a spotless record. In the last few years, SpaceX has lost one vehicle on the launchpad and another broke apart en route to the International Space Station (ISS). Yet, SpaceX is on a roll as it nears three dozen successful Falcon 9 launches in a row. The company is also cruising toward certification to ferry astronauts to the ISS. NASA has bestowed SpaceX’s Falcon 9 vehicle with its highest launch vehicle certification: Category 3. That means SpaceX can launch the agency’s most important missions.
The Falcon 9 began its life as a typical expendable rocket, but SpaceX has worked toward improving reliability over the years. Now, it’s common for SpaceX to land the first stage booster after sending a payload into orbit. This has made its launches of smaller missions extremely efficient, but the rocket can still operate in an expendable mode for heavier payloads. That would likely be the case for any Category 3 launches.
NASA has four different spacecraft classifications spread across the three launch certifications. Class D is a low-cost and potentially replaceable mission. NASA will chuck these spacecraft in anything with an engine, even if it’s never launched before — those vehicles are considered Category 1. Class C spacecraft are those that are somewhat complex and not easily replaced but aren’t vital to NASA’s goals. These missions can launch on Category 2 rockets that have flown before and gotten engineering certification from NASA. That’s where the Falcon 9 was before.
The Category 3 certification means SpaceX can launch Class A and B NASA spacecraft. These are high-cost and highly complex missions that the agency can’t afford to lose in a fireball. The Hubble Space Telescope was Class A, as is the upcoming Webb Space Telescope and the Mars 2020 rover. Just because NASA trusts the Falcon 9 to launch important missions doesn’t mean it will. The Falcon 9 regularly sends payloads to low-Earth orbit, but some Class A spacecraft may need more power than the Falcon 9 can offer. There’s hope the Falcon Heavy could step in there.
The Falcon Heavy is based on the Falcon 9 design — it uses three modified Falcon 9 stages strapped together. NASA requires at least three successful launches in addition to extensive validation of the design. The Falcon Heavy has one test flight under its belt (in early 2018), and two commercial launches are scheduled for 2019. That could put the rocket in a position to get Category 3 certification. However, SpaceX hasn’t been shy about its plans to move all its launches to the more versatile BFR in the future.
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