SpaceX starting small as it dreams of grand plans
BY JUSTIN RAY
Posted: January 20, 2005
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Elon Musk conceived SpaceX to offer low-cost access to space, give a boost to what he calls a "stagnate" industry that has failed to evolve since Apollo and build toward the goal of launching human space voyages.
"The past few decades have been a dark age for development of a new human space transportation system. One multi-billion dollar government program after another has failed. In fact, they have failed even to reach the launch pad, let alone get to space," Musk said in testimony before a U.S. Senate committee last spring.
"The reaction of the public has been to care less and less about space, an apathy not intrinsic to a nation of explorers, but born of poor progress, of being disappointed time and again. When America landed on the Moon, I believe we made a promise and gave people a dream. It seemed then that, given the normal course of technological evolution, someone who was not a billionaire, not an astronaut made of 'The Right Stuff,' but just a normal person, might one day see Earth from space. That dream is nothing but broken disappointment today. If we do not now take action different from the past, it will remain that way."
SpaceX has been selling its small Falcon 1 rocket for $5.9 million and the beefed up Falcon 5 for $15.8 million, plus launch site Range fees, which is significantly cheaper than other American rockets available today with comparable lifting capacity.
"In fact, it was precisely to improve the cost and reliability of access to space, initially for satellites and later for humans, that I established SpaceX (although some of my friends still think the real goal was to turn a large fortune into a small one)," Musk said in his Senate testimony.
"Our first offering, called Falcon 1, will be the world's only semi-reusable orbital rocket apart from the space shuttle. Although Falcon 1 is a light class launch vehicle, we have already announced and sold the first flight of Falcon 5, our medium class rocket.
"Long term plans call for development of a heavy lift product and even a super-heavy, if there is customer demand. We expect that each size increase would result in a meaningful decrease in cost per pound to orbit. For example, dollar cost per pound to orbit dropped from $4,000 to $1,300 between Falcon 1 and Falcon 5. Ultimately, I believe $500 per pound or less is very achievable."
The first stage main engine, called Merlin, generates about 71,500 pounds of thrust at sea-level to boost the 70-foot tall, 5.5-foot diameter rocket off the ground. The motor fires for nearly three minutes before separating and parachuting into the ocean where an awaiting ship recovers the stage for reuse, a feature designed to hold down per-launch costs for Falcon's government and commercial customers.
The upper stage's Kestrel engine, with its 7,500 pounds of thrust in vacuum, is capable of several re-ignitions during ascent.
To substantially increase the amount of cargo SpaceX can launch, the company is developing the Falcon 5 that resembles a big brother of Falcon 1.
Standing 100 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter, the Falcon 5 is a gradual evolution from the Falcon 1 design. But what distinguishes the booster is the cluster of five Merlin first stage engines.
The powerplants will be feeding from the same kerosene and liquid oxygen tanks, which SpaceX says provides an "engine-out" capability. That means the first stage could suffer an engine failure -- and depending on when during ascent, as many of three lost engines -- and still complete the launch. Kevlar shielding wrapped around each engine is supposed to protect the good engines from one that is malfunctioning.
"In the case of SpaceX, we believe that our second generation vehicle in particular, the Falcon 5, will provide a factor of ten improvement in propulsion reliability. Falcon 5 will be the first U.S. launch vehicle since the Saturn 5 moon rocket that can complete its mission even if an engine fails in flight - like almost all commercial aircraft. In fact, Saturn 5, which had a flawless flight record, was able to complete its mission on two occasions only because it had engine-out redundancy," Musk told the Presidential Commission on the Moon-Mars Initiative last year.
With the upgraded engine cluster producing a half-million pounds of thrust at launch, Falcon 5 will loft 10,530 pounds into polar orbit, 12,010 pounds to the station's altitude and 13,260 pounds to the low-Earth orbit from the Cape inclined 28 degrees north and south of the equator. What's more, the bigger booster will be capable of carrying 4,240 pounds into a geosynchronous transfer orbit, inclined 9 degrees, that is used by communications satellites destined for geostationary orbit 22,300 miles above the planet, and it can accelerate 2,650 pounds to escape velocity for planetary and deep space probes.
The Falcon 5 upper stage will use another kerosene-fueled Merlin engine, a departure from earlier plans to fly two Kestrel engines on the rocket.
Falcon missions begin with rocket construction in El Segundo. The completed rockets are strapped onto a special trailer and driven to the launch site. The payload is mated to the vehicle in the final days before liftoff while the rocket is still resting on the mobile transporter. As the countdown begins, the fully assembled booster is erected on the pad, fueled and readied for liftoff.
The SpaceX design requires little infrastructure, with a large, portable tent covering the horizontal rocket at the launch site.
"I think something has to be done about the cost of long-term access to space. My long term interest is actually in human transportation but I think it makes sense from sound business standpoint to start off with something small and where there is a clear market, which is satellite delivery, and down the road scale up the vehicle," Musk said in an earlier interview with Spaceflight Now.
Musk acknowledged that developing the Falcon rocket from scratch has been difficult.
"I like challenging engineering problems and this is certainly quite challenging...Financially speaking, I'm a volunteer in this situation. I made enough money with PayPal and Zip2 that I don't really need to work. I guess it would have to be more interesting than living on a tropical island or something like that."
For more on SpaceX and its plans at Cape Canaveral, see our separate story.