The first launch of the Falcon I rocket will be attempted next Friday, November 25th at 1pm US Pacific Coast time, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk announced at a news conference today.
The flight will take place from the SpaceX private launch facilities on the small Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. There will be only a very limited webcast available, probably only to the press.
In his opening remarks Musk kept expectations low, ‘The history of rocket development is one which is replete with failure, and where there are very few successes. We hope to be one of the successes, but I want to make sure everyone is aware that, no matter what happens on launch day, I feel that we are quite successful already.’ He later said, ‘We are at peace with ourselves on this launch, because we’ve done all we can.’
The maiden flight of the Falcon I will launch the Air Force Academy’s FalconSat-2 satellite, which will measure space plasma phenomena.
Musk said that SpaceX was almost finished the manufacture of the second production unit of the Falcon I, with a third rocket now also being manufactured. The Falcon I has a recoverable first stage, which will parachute into the ocean approximately 600 miles from the launch site where it will be retrieved by ship. It is SpaceX’s hope that instead of simply building disposable rockets that they can build a reusable fleet of first stages. However, SpaceX is currently not assuming any success at first stage refurbishment in their quoted launch prices; Musk said that successful first stage reuse could lower their prices even further.
Time to orbit from launch will be about 10 minutes, with a 3 minute first stage burn, and a 7 minute second stage burn. The second stage Kestrel engine is also a completely new SpaceX design. The second stage will attempt an in-space engine re-ignition to test a collision avoidance maneuver after the payload is released into orbit, however completion of the maneuver is not necessary for this mission’s success.
Musk said he would probably be seeking outside funding on the order of $100 million early next year. Musk has personally sunk approximately $100 million into the company so far, largely earned when he sold his prior endeavor, PayPal.
SpaceX will shortly be announcing details on a new engine design, the Merlin-2, which Musk assured would be the largest current engine in the world of any kind. At a talk last week, Musk had qualified that it would be the largest single-thrust-chamber engine. The Merlin-2 will be a regeneratively cooled engine; ‘One mistake we made with Merlin-1 was to go with an ablative design’. SpaceX experienced at least one ablative chamber failure during engine testing in September which has delayed the first launch by months. Musk stressed the extremely difficult engine development process, saying ‘No one said rockets were easy, but it was harder than that’.
When asked about the potential use of the Falcon 9 for ISS resupply, Musk stated that he was optimistic that they should be able to do that in the next 3-4 years. In fact, Musk said SpaceX intends to offer their own complete solution for ISS resupply, including a cargo capsule and docking capability. But they will also be happy to fly someone elses resupply capsule at the same price they charge internally for a launch. However, Musk says that SpaceX’s activities are currently focused only on the booster, not the challenges of the cargo capsule.
On the topic of manned spaceflight, SpaceX is designing its rockets to attempt to meet NASA’s man-rating design margin requirements, and has stressed from the beginning their desire to use the launchers for manned travel. Musk forsees a private market in space tourism to the ISS, to a possible future Bigelow space hotel, and just taking people up to orbit. He also said that the Falcon-9 should be capable of taking tourists on a ‘loop around the moon’ voyage. However, when asked if SpaceX was currently developing a manned capsule, Musk refused to comment.
SPACEX LITIGATION UPDATE
SpaceX filed a revised set of claims this week in their on-going anti-trust lawsuit against Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The claims revision primarily reflects an Air Force amendment to it’s Buy 3 solicitation in May to clarify that launch ‘allocations’ for 2007 and beyond were not firm contracts, but would be awarded annually. The original solicitation appeared to offer contracts for 23 EELV launches through 2011. The Air Force added the amendment in September after a SpaceX protest to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) in August resulted in a freeze on the Air Force solicitation. Why the original claims document filed late last month did not reflect the September Air Force solicitation clarification is unclear.
SpaceX itself contests that even informal launch ‘allocations’ ensure the final winner of the launch contracts because design and launch preparations will proceed on the assumption that a particular company’s vehicle will be used.
The revised claims also added additional specific allegations that Lockheed and Boeing deliberately misled the government about the severity of the slack EELV-class commercial launch market since 2000. The case has already won a partial victory for SpaceX. SpaceX filed the case just days before the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was due to rule on Boeing and Lockheed Martin’s controversial proposed United Launch Alliance (ULA) consolidation of launch services. SpaceX claims the consolidation is a criminal conspiracy in violation of US anti-trust laws. The FTC delayed its ruling on the ULA, and instead issued a request for more information.
Last week, Elon Musk revealed his conceptual ambitions for a 100 tons to LEO rocket, colorfully nicknamed the ‘BFR’. Musk made the revelation when he spoke at the small SpaceVision2005 conference of the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS). Musk spoke of the BFR when an audience member asked why the existing SpaceX test stand in Texas is built to handle nearly five times the thrust of the Falcon 9 first state, SpaceX’s largest announced design to date. Musk said the BFR would be powered by the Merlin-2 engine, currently in early development.
Musk say he sees the short-term market for the BFR in possible NASA launches, and the long-term market for the vehicle in transporting the infrastructure for colonization of the Moon and Mars. ‘We’re not quite sure how to pay for that vehicle,’ Musk said.
Live updates from the press conference can be viewed back here: