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SpaceX Falcon 9 Launch Vehicle Moves Toward First Flight: CEO

By | August 27, 2007

      By Michael Sirak

      Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is making marked progress toward the maiden launch of the company’s massive Falcon 9 space launch vehicle around the end of next year, the company’s founder said.

      “Our team’s focused efforts (sometimes around the clock) have kept us on track to deliver our first Falcon 9 to Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral by the end of 2008,” Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and chief technology officer, wrote in an update that he distributed Aug. 22 and posted at the SpaceX Web site.

      Standing about 18 stories tall (54 meters) on the launch pad, the two-stage Falcon 9 is SpaceX’s entry into the large-sized space-launch-vehicle market traditionally dominated by two aerospace giants: The Boeing Co. [BA] and Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] with their respective Delta and Atlas boosters.

      SpaceX is building the Falcon 9 as well as the Falcon 9 Heavy variant in order to offer the government a competitive alternative to them for missions like carrying astronauts and cargo to and from the International Space Station, lifting large satellites to geosynchronous orbits and even planetary exploration.

      The Falcon 9 and Falcon 9 Heavy are designed to be fully reusable.

      They are the larger cousins of SpaceX’s two-staged Falcon 1 rocket that has flown twice to date.

      The initial flight of the baseline Falcon 9 will be a demonstration mission to prove the soundness of its design. It is scheduled to occur in the fourth quarter of 2008, according to the company’s launch manifest.

      Musk said, toward that goal, the company is preparing to conduct the first multi-engine firing of the Falcon 9 first-stage around December on a test stand at the company’s Texas development facility, located midway between Dallas and Austin. The first completed first-stage fuel tank built for the Falcon 9, a two-chambered vessel 86 feet long and 12 feet in diameter, is being readied for attachment to the first-stage engine bay that is already in the Falcon 9 structural test stand there, he said.

      The maiden launch will be followed by the first of three demonstration flights for the NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program and then by the Falcon 9 first commercial mission to carry a satellite into orbit for the Canadian MDA Corp.

      The latter two launches are also scheduled in the final quarter of 2008, according to the manifest, which lists a total of six Falcon 9 missions so far.

      Falcon 9 will use the same Merlin 1C engines now being used on the Falcon 1 and much of the same avionics, mission assurance processes and automated health monitoring, Musk said.

      SpaceX also is applying the “hundreds of lessons learned from Falcon 1” in the Falcon 9 program, he noted.

      The first stage of the Falcon 9 is powered by nine of the Merlin 1C engines, while the second stage runs on a single Merlin 1C. They give the rocket the power to loft 22,900 pounds or 10,400 kilograms into orbit, Musk said. The rocket has a cargo area in its nose that is 17 feet in diameter and 50 feet long, which is large enough to fit a bus, he said.

      The Falcon 9 Heavy straps on two additional Falcon 9 first-stage boosters to the baseline Falcon 9 configuration. Musk said he expects to fly the heavy-lift variant about two years after the standard Falcon 9 flies.

      Falcon 9 will have a maximum thrust of just over one million pounds, which is four times the thrust that a Boeing 747 commercial airliner can produce, Musk said. The Falcon 9 Heavy will be capable of producing more than three million pounds of thrust, which is almost half as much as the Saturn V rocket that carried U.S. astronauts to the moon, he said.

      In April, the Air Force awarded Launch Complex 40 to SpaceX for Falcon 9 missions.

      The Cape Canaveral pad, which company engineers are now outfitting, is capable of supporting both the Falcon 9 and Falcon 9 Heavy, Musk said.

      “To be awarded what is arguably the best available launch pad at the Cape is in effect a significant endorsement of SpaceX and the Falcon 9,” he wrote. “We owe a debt of gratitude to those within the government that fought hard for us to be granted this facility.”

      Musk said SpaceX also will establish a Falcon 9 launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., and is considering flying the Falcon 9 from the company’s existing launch infrastructure on Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific that has been established for Falcon 1 flights.

      “The combination of Florida, California and Kwajalein launch sites will also give us launch site redundancy,” he wrote. “We can almost always get to any orbit from multiple locations. That means if there is a hurricane in Florida or a hold up of some kind in Kwajalein, we can still ensure that our customers launch without delay.”

      Concurrent to Falcon 9 activities, SpaceX continues to prepare for the next mission of the Falcon 1, which flew most recently on March 20, its second flight test for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The mission was deemed a success despite an upper-stage anomaly that prevented the rocket from reaching its orbital velocity.

      Musk said the Falcon 1 rocket is expected to arrive at Kwajalein in December, with the first launch window anticipated around mid-January.

      The company is implementing changes to the Falcon 1 design for better performance, Musk said. The most significant alteration is replacing the ablatively cooled Merlin 1A main engine with the regeneratively cooled Merlin 1C, he said. The latter has higher thrust, higher efficiency and is more robust, he said.

      Falcon 1 is also switching to a second-stage tank made of a higher strength aluminum alloy, he said. Further, the company has upgraded the upper-stage engine from the Kestral to the Kestrel 2 configuration, he said.

      Musk said the company has accumulated more than 2,200 seconds of test firings on a single Merlin engine. The engine has “exceeded or met its development targets for thrust, Isp (specific impulse), and mass,” he wrote.

      The first flight-ready qualification Merlin has already been built and is ready to ship to Texas, pending the verification of a new injector-to-manifold attachment method, he said.

      SpaceX is gearing up to produce Merlin engines at a rate approaching one every two weeks by the end of this year, he said.

      Musk said SpaceX has grown to about 350 employees today, most of which are located in the company’s headquarters in El Segundo, Calif. But an increasing number of personnel work out of the SpaceX development site in Texas, as well as the company’s launch complexes at Cape Canaveral and Kwajalein and in its office in Washington, D.C.

      By then end of 2008, Musk said he expects the company will employ between 500 and 600 workers.

      SpaceX is preparing to move its headquarters from El Segundo to a much larger facility in nearby Hawthorne, adjacent to the Hawthorne Airport, he said.

      Financially, 2007 is shaping up to be “a pretty good year” for the company, Musk noted.

      “Even if we don’t sign any additional launch contracts, it looks like we will be both cash flow positive and possibly profitable in 2007, our fifth full year of operation,” he wrote.

      SpaceX has 11 launches on its manifest: five Falcon 1 missions plus the six Falcon 9 flights.

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