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SpaceX Finally Launches Falcon 1, Rocket Soars To Orbit On Fourth Try

By | September 29, 2008

      Launch Is A Win For Both SpaceX And NASA, Which Needs Commercial Transport Capabilities To Space Station

      Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, yesterday finally attained success in launching a Falcon 1 rocket that soared into space and achieved Earth orbit.

      This is a major victory for the company after three failed attempts, but it also is a major win for NASA, which supplied seed/incentive money to SpaceX, because beginning with the space shuttle fleet retirement in 2010, NASA for half a decade will need to procure logistics supply services for the International Space Station.

      NASA also provides seed money to Orbital Sciences Corp. [ORB].

      Private commercial orbital transport services (COTS) are seen as one answer to the problem. The space station also will be supplied by Russian Progress and European Space Agency robotic cargo ships.

      The success for SpaceX in the launch yesterday proves that privately designed and funded cargo spaceships are a reality.

      Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and CTO, and his employees exulted in the by-the-book burn to orbit, with Musk musing that the fourth time is the charm.

      In earlier launches, failures were caused by the first stage bumping the second stage at separation. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, Aug. 4, 2008.)

      Also, Space X previously saw a launch failure on March 20 last year when separation went well but there was excitation or gyration of the second stage. Also, on March 24, 2006, a fuel line leak caused the loss of the space vehicle shortly after liftoff. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, March 27, 2007.)

      But finally, the Falcon 1 that launched yesterday became the first privately developed liquid fuel rocket to orbit the Earth.

      "This is a great day for SpaceX and the culmination of an enormous amount of work by a great team," Musk said. "The data shows we achieved a super precise orbit insertion — middle of the bull’s-eye — and then went on to coast and restart the second stage, which was icing on the cake."

      Falcon 1, designed from the ground up by SpaceX, lifted off at 4:15 p.m. PT

      from the Reagan Test Site on Omelek Island at the Army Kwajalein Atoll in the Central Pacific, about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii.

      Preliminary data indicates that Falcon 1 achieved an elliptical orbit of 500 km by 700 km, 9.2 degrees inclination — exactly as targeted.

      Falcon 1 carried into orbit a payload mass simulator of approximately 165 kilograms (364 pounds), designed and built by SpaceX specifically for this mission. Consisting of a hexagonal aluminum alloy chamber, 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall, the payload remains attached to the second stage as it orbits Earth.

      This was the fourth launch of the Falcon 1 launch vehicle and second flight for the new SpaceX-developed Merlin 1C regeneratively-cooled engine. A "hold before liftoff" system was used to enhance reliability by permitting all launch systems to be verified as functioning nominally before launch was initiated. A single SpaceX-developed Kestrel engine powered the Falcon 1 second stage.

      As a winner of the NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services competition (COTS), SpaceX is in a position to help fill the gap in American spaceflight to the International Space Station (ISS) when the Space Shuttle retires in 2010. Under the existing agreement, SpaceX will conduct three flights of its much larger Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft for NASA, culminating in Dragon berthing with the ISS. NASA also has an option to demonstrate crew services to the ISS using the Falcon 9 / Dragon system.

      SpaceX is the only COTS contender that has the capability to return pressurized cargo and crew to Earth. The first Falcon 9 will arrive at the SpaceX launch site (complex 40) at Cape Canaveral, Fla., by the end of the year in preparation for its maiden flight next year.