SpaceX reveals Falcon 1 Halloween date

by Braddock Gaskill

At a private space complex on a tiny Pacific Atoll, dot-com multi-millionaire Elon Musk will attempt a Halloween maiden launch of the new Falcon 1 rocket.

Elon Musk’s company – SpaceX – was founded with a stated mission no less ambitious than to facilitate affordable manned colonization of Mars.
The October 31st Falcon 1 flight will place the FalconSat-2 satellite into low earth orbit.  The FalconSat-2 is part of the Air Force Academy’s program to measure space plasma phenomena.  Far more significant than the payload, however, is the opportunity for SpaceX  to finally prove it’s launch vehicle design.  The Falcon 1 is an entirely new design, including new first and second stage engines – the Kerosene/LOX Merlin and the low pressure vacuum second stage Kestrel.

If successful, the launch could herald in a new age of lower-cost entrepreneurial launch services.  The Falcon 1 can deliver a small 570 kg payload to LEO for a total cost of approximately $6.7 million.  The Falcon 1 itself is unlikely to revolutionize the launch market…converted Russian ICBM launch vehicles remain in a similar cost and orbital payload range (with some reliability issues).

However, SpaceX’s ambitious schedule and price-list for the planned Falcon 5 and Falcon 9 vehicles, based on the same Merlin engines, could possibly turn today’s medium and heavy launch service industries on their heads.

For a company founded with such lofty goals as the colonization of Mars, SpaceX promises nuts-and-bolts pragmatism when it comes to engineering and economics.  While their small single engine Falcon 1 is designed to lift a payload of only about 1,200 pounds to LEO, SpaceX hopes to combine between 5 and 28 Merlin engines of the same design to provide ultra-low-cost heavy lift capabilities. 

Like a space-age Eli Whitney, Elon Musk is chanting the mantra of interchangeable parts.  The only significant difference between the hardware of the 5-ton-capable Falcon 5 and the 10-ton-capable Falcon 9 may be four fewer engines and a half-empty fuel tank.  The second stage structure on the Falcon 9 will be almost identical to the first stage, just shorter.  Three Falcon 9 first stages strapped together in a booster configuration provide provide the 25 tons to LEO capability of the Falcon 9 Heavy, which would be the current heaviest lift launch system in the world.

SpaceX press releases read as if the design of the yet-unlaunched Falcon 1 is already a memory of the company’s youth.  SpaceX is charging ahead with planned commercial launches for the Falcon 9 in less than two years.  With almost 20 times the payload capacity as the Falcon 1, the Falcon 9 is already scheduled with an unspecified US Government payload for a second quarter 2007 launch date.  They expect the first hold-down test stand firing of their Falcon 9 first stage engine array in the second quarter of 2006.

The maiden flight of the Falcon 1 follows several cautious weeks of delay when a Merlin engine failed during a test last month.  Those weeks of hesitation pale in comparison to the months of additional delay caused by political and operational complications at SpaceX’s other launch facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base, where the first Falcon 1 flight had been scheduled for months ago.  SpaceX operations at Vandenberg are still being held back by a neighboring Titan IV launch which has seen months of delays. 

The Falcon 1 launch will be from the miniscule island Omelek of the Kwajalein Atoll, leased by the US Army as a missile test range from the Marshall Islands.  The island is only 9 degrees from the equator, allowing launches to take more advantage of the Earth’s rotation.

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