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.
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.
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.Update thread: