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SpaceX founder weighs in on Falcon 9 launch readiness

Posted: November 26, 2009

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Elon Musk, SpaceX's founder and chief executive, provided an update on Falcon 9 launch preparations at Cape Canaveral Wednesday and set odds for success on the low-cost booster's maiden flight early next year.

Elon Musk stands with a Falcon 9 first stage during tests at Cape Canaveral in January 2009. Credit: SpaceX
Hardware for the Falcon 9 rocket is again streaming into the Cape, Musk said in an interview Wednesday.

The launcher's first stage, nine main engines, interstage, payload adapter and stripped down Dragon spacecraft have already arrived at the company's launch pad. The Falcon 9's second stage is finishing up testing in Texas before being shipped to Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, according to Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Space Exploration Technologies Corp.

The Falcon 9 is being built to haul supplies to the International Space Station inside the Dragon spacecraft, which is also developed by SpaceX. The company has a contract with NASA to test the Dragon and conduct up to 12 operational cargo delivery flights in a contract worth $1.6 billion.

The Commercial Resupply Services contract, awarded in December 2008, also includes eight missions by Orbital Sciences Corp. Orbital's flights will use a spacecraft called Cygnus and the Taurus 2 rocket in launches from Wallops Island, Va.

The Taurus 2's first flight is scheduled for March 2011, at the earliest.

Musk said the Falcon 9 launch won't happen before early February, but the high-tech tycoon cautioned not to read into target dates.

"I definitely want to be clear about any dates that are specified by SpaceX because it's often mischaracterized in the media as SpaceX delays again or some nonsense like that," Musk told Spaceflight Now. "The only thing we can really predict with some degree of accuracy, at least, is when the rockets will get to the launch pad."

Once the second stage arrives at the launch site, engineers will assemble the components horizontally and lift the 180-foot-tall rocket atop the pad at Complex 40 for a battery of compatibility checks and systems tests.

The activities will include electrical and communications testing, fueling demonstrations and countdown rehearsals.

An aerial view of Complex 40 captured in late October. Credit: NASA-KSC
"Given this is a new rocket, it's difficult to say with certainty how long it takes to iron out any integration issues or any issues in the interaction between the launch pad and the vehicle," Musk said.

A static hotfire test of the first stage, lasting between 3 and 5 seconds, is planned for late January or early February. If that milestone goes well, launch could follow soon thereafter.

When the Falcon 9 does lift off, Musk said SpaceX's hard-earned experience with the smaller Falcon 1 rocket will give the launcher a better shot at success.

"I'd give it perhaps 70 to 80 percent likelihood of success, of complete success where it goes to orbit," Musk said. "Obviously, that's not 100 percent and that's just my personal guess. I do think the odds are much better with Falcon 9 than Falcon 1 because, first of all, SpaceX is a much larger and more mature company with a much broader range of expertise. I don't feel as though we're weak in any area of rocket launch at this point."

The Falcon 9 uses nine first stage engines nearly identical to the single powerplant flying on the Falcon 1. The Merlin engine has had no major problems on four out of five Falcon 1 launches.

Another Merlin engine, modified to ignite at altitude and burn in vacuum, will power the Falcon 9's second stage to orbit.

"A lot of the hardware on Falcon 9 has already flown on Falcon 1, the engines in particular are very well characterized, a lot of the avionics, the structural design, the loads, stage separation, a lot of the things that have caused (issues) in the past, have now had flight history and we understand them pretty well," Musk said.

If the inaugural Falcon 9 mission goes smoothly, SpaceX hopes to follow it up with another Dragon flight, this time outfitted with guidance, propulsion, re-entry and recovery systems.

The Dragon qualification unit will fly on the Falcon 9's first launch. Credit: SpaceX
Two more Dragon demo missions are slated for later in 2010, first to test rendezvous systems, and then to fly to the space station for capture and berthing by the complex's robot arm.

SpaceX has finished developing the Dragon's maneuvering thrusters and heat shield. Qualification of the capsule's core pressure vessel has also concluded. Engineers' attention has now turned to software development and integration of Dragon vehicles, according to Musk.

When asked what accomplishments he expects SpaceX to have amassed by next Thanksgiving, Musk said he hopes the Falcon 9 has successfully launched twice and the Dragon has orbited Earth and been recovered.

"I hope we have much to give thanks for," Musk said. "These are pretty damn tough things to get right, so it's not as though we're going into this with all sorts of bravado saying, hey, we're going to bat a thousand. I think the odds are on our side, but nothing's ever certain with rockets."

"And we are talking about the first flight of Falcon 9 and the first flight of Dragon. These are test flights, so in the best of all possible worlds, we will have successfully flown Falcon 9 and we will have successfully flown Dragon and brought it back to Earth," Musk said.