New low-cost space rocket poised for maiden flight
BY JUSTIN RAY
Posted: November 24, 2005
A commercial space company, created by a wealthy man with lofty ambitions, stands on the verge of its inaugural rocket launch this week.
Much more than a small U.S. military payload is riding on Friday's blastoff of Space Exploration Technologies' Falcon 1 rocket from a tiny island in the Central Pacific. A successful maiden flight of this remarkably low-cost booster has the potential to shake up the business of spaceflight.
But the Falcon 1 vehicle must prove it actually works as advertised.
Leading SpaceX is Elon Musk, a native of South Africa who amassed a fortune as co-founder of PayPal, the online payment system, and earlier the Zip2 software company. He dreams of human voyages to the planets and has spent "a very significant portion" of his net worth to begin a revolution.
"Becoming a space faring civilization or a multi-planet species...it may very well be the hardest thing that humanity ever does," Musk said. "Life has a duty to extend itself and we, as life's representatives, should do so."
The 70-foot tall Falcon 1 is just the first step, Musk says, in the grander plan. The vehicle's design will evolve into larger rockets -- the Falcon 5 and Falcon 9. And a powerful mega-engine is on the horizon.
The central theme for Musk is reducing launch costs. He puts the price tag for the Falcon 1 at $6.7 million per launch, which would appear to be a bargain in the U.S. market since NASA currently spends almost three times that much on existing rockets of similar lifting power.
"I hope this is really ... the first stepping stone in reducing the cost of access to space, not just for satellites, obviously Falcon 1 is a satellite launch vehicle, but really ultimately for human transportation," Musk said. "If we are to become a true space faring civilization we must reduce the cost the cost of access to space and, in fact, improve the reliability by factors of 10. So I'm hopeful that this is just the first step."
A small group of engineers has taken the Falcon 1 from the drawing board to the launch pad in just over three years. The team developed two engines -- Merlin for the first stage and Kestrel for the second stage -- plus the electronics and guidance systems to run the privately-made rocket.
Creating the Merlin has been fraught with problems, significantly delaying this launch while the team wrestled to overcome the setbacks. But the end result is only the second American liquid-fueled main engine developed since the 1970s, joining the Boeing Delta 4 rocket's RS-68.
"It's been a very difficult development. Nobody said rockets would be easy, but it was harder than that," Musk said.
Successfully flying a rocket requires everything to go right, and history is littered with failed inaugural launches. Musk compared the maiden flight with trying to develop perfect software.
"It is like...if you had a very complex piece of software that you test pieces of but you can't test the whole thing together until you ran it for the first time, nor could you test it on the exact computer that it had to run for the first time. But when it does run for the first time it can have no bugs. When was the last time you saw a piece of software that met that criteria?"
The ultimate test for Falcon 1 comes Friday on Omelek Island in the Kwajalein Atoll, which is part of the Marshall Islands where the U.S. military operates a base for surveillance tracking and missile defense tests. Launch will be possible between 4 and 8 p.m. EST (2100-0100 GMT).
"I think I can say with confidence that we've left no stone unturned," Musk said. "There have been no shortcuts in development. If there was anything we could think of to do, we would do it, but we've done everything we can. We feel fairly at peace with ourselves with this launch. We've done all we can."
The two-stage rocket will launch the Air Force Academy's cadet-built FalconSat 2 science spacecraft into a 250 by 310 mile orbit inclined 39 degrees to the equator. The tiny satellite will probe space plasma that can impact communications and GPS navigation accuracy.
Cadets had planned to launch their craft aboard space shuttle Atlantis in March 2003. But the Columbia accident a month earlier grounded the shuttle fleet. Plans for deploying the small satellite from the shuttle payload bay were later scrapped.
Weighing just 43 pounds, the FalconSat's diminutive size leaves its rocket with an exceptional amount of unused performance. That will allow the rocket's upper stage, after releasing the payload, to re-ignite its engine for further in-orbit maneuvering tests.
Meanwhile, the first stage will parachute into the Pacific where an awaiting recovery ship plans to retrieve the booster for reuse on a later launch.
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