Elon Musk Q and A – Updates SpaceX status on Falcon and Dragon

by Chris Bergin

Elon Musk, CEO of Space Exploration Technologies – commonly known as SpaceX – has given NASASpaceflight.com an exclusive interview, in which he updates the status of their Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 launch vehicles, along with their push towards the debut of their Dragon manned spacecraft.

Musk speaks candidly about the challenges involved with taking SpaceX forward, via their goals of launch vehicle design and implementation, and in parallel with their COTS contract with NASA.

Q: Is the next Falcon 1 Launch still on track for mid-January?

This schedule is dependent on completing qualification of the Merlin 1C engine, so it is impossible to predict with precision what the launch date will be.  All we can do is state that the first countdown will probably be in the Jan/Feb timeframe, unless the Merlin 1C qualification takes longer than expected.

Q: What payload, if any, will the next Falcon 1 launch carry?

At present, no satellite is manifested, but we will at minimum carry an instrumented mass simulator.  If a satellite comes along that is willing to pay at least a few million dollars, requires very little attention from SpaceX engineers and will not delay the launch, we will fly it.  All proposals to date fail one or more of those requirements.  One potential customer offered us several million dollars to fly their satellite, but required a delay until June, which was unacceptable.

Note, the TacSat-1 launch contract has not been cancelled, even though the satellite won’t be carried.  The DoD will continue to pay for the launch and we will grant NRL credit on a future flight.  I’ve heard rumors recently that there is still a small chance that the DoD wants to fly TacSat-1 on the next flight, but there’s nothing official, so don’t know what to make of that.

Q: When is the first F9 first-stage hold-down firing scheduled?

Theoretically Oct, but realistically Nov/Dec.  We will start with one engine on the stage and then gradually build up to nine engines.  Nine engine stage hold down firings will probably be in Q1 next year, unless we get really lucky.  Complex developments with a lot of unknowns always have big error bars around the dates.

What are the major milestones before it happens?

* First stage SN 1 built — done
* Big Falcon Test Stand (BFTS) built out — done
* Mount first stage in BFTS — done
* Merlin 1C mounted in stage — Oct/Nov
* Fire one engine — Nov/Dec?
* Fire three engines — Dec/Jan?
* Fire five engines — Jan/Feb?
* Fire nine engines! — Feb/March?

Q: When is the first F9 launch scheduled?

No earlier than late 2008, per our website.  As with any new development, those are just estimates based on what we know today.  It will not happen sooner and may happen later.

Q) What will be the payload, if any?

Test instrumentation, although there might be a few small satellites carried along too.  To be clear, however, we are not looking for payloads — this is a test flight, like the first two flights of Falcon 1.

Q: Can you highlight some of the current and future SpaceX preparations at Cape Canaveral’s LC-40?

We start major demo soon and hopefully will start building the F9 hangar early next year, depending on permitting.  SpaceX will not be using the Titan IV’s umbilical tower or mobile service tower.

In the coming months, I will put out an update talking about the rich history of LC-40 (for those that don’t know) and how SpaceX intends to put LC-40 to use with F9, F9 Heavy and Dragon.  It really is an awesome launch complex and we’re honored to call it our home at the Cape.

Q: The company has grown to over 350 employees and moved to much larger facilities this year, and you have stated you expect over 500 employees next year.  This makes SpaceX nearly as large an organization as some established small launch companies. How can SpaceX afford to grow this large and still maintain such low quoted launch costs?

Contrary to conventional wisdom, SpaceX is very vertically integrated and, unlike Boeing or Lockheed, builds the engines (main and upper) and the avionics system internally, as well as sells and operates the launches for both F1 and F9.  That means we are like RocketDyne, L3/Honeywell, ILS and ULA combined.  Then there is the Dragon spacecraft on top of the launch activity.  350 or even 500 employees is a small number in that context.

The reason we are vertically integrated is that use of legacy space hardware would kill our cost structure.  Legacy parts = legacy costs.  Also, the goal with F9 is full reusability over time, which the existing supply chain is not geared to support.

Q: Several ‘US Government’ customer launches have been dropped from the published Falcon 9 manifest recently.  What has caused the change?

Can’t go into detail, except to say that we have never lost a launch contract.

Q: Can SpaceX complete the COTS program without additional outside investment?   Is SpaceX currently attempting to raise outside investment?

If necessary, I can personally provide the entire investment required by our COTS contract.  At some point, we will raise outside money, but have not attempted to do so yet and will not do so in 2007.

There have been several unsolicited offers to invest from credible entities, including both high net worth individuals and hedge funds.  Most of them would make great investors, but we just don’t need their money right now.  SpaceX has been cash flow positive for over a year and there is a good chance we will be slightly profitable this year, due to accounting rules requiring recognition of long term contracts on a percentage of completion basis.

Q: In light of RpK’s difficulties raising money, what risks are investors particularly concerned about when considering financing a space launch company?

Rockets are pretty far outside the comfort zone of most investors.  The number of launch company startups that made a ton of money for their investors is zero and the graveyard of failures is large (Orbital is reasonably well, but not because of their satellite launchers).  That’s the biggest problem for launch companies in general.  If SpaceX has a strong IPO, that will be a big help in getting funding for other launch vehicle startups, just as occurred with Netscape in the early days of the Internet.

Q: How is the Kestrel 2 significantly changed from the original Kestrel?

Tighter manufacturing tolerances to improve consistency.  Lighter.  Higher Isp.

Q: When will a manned Dragon capsule first fly, and will you be on it?

Manned without people (high altitude orbit) maybe in 2010.  With people, 2011.  I won’t be on it — too risky for SpaceX and I want to see my kids grow up.  Don’t mind risk of death after that.

Q: Will SpaceX use its own astronauts, or sell the manned launch services to NASA?

Demo flights can’t use NASA astronauts, so we will use SpaceX employees that volunteer for the job.

Q: How are you planning on testing the second-stage for the Falcon 9?

Stage hold down tests with a diffuser to simulate high altitude conditions, similar to how the F1 Kestrel powered upper stage was tested.

Q: What have been he biggest cause of schedule delays in the past?  Both technical and others?

Excessive optimism internally.  A huge factor for F1 was being unable to launch from Vandenberg.  We did a vehicle hold down firing at Vandenberg in May 2005, less than three years after starting SpaceX!  Then first countdown was Nov 2005 and first launch March 2006.  That failed due to corrosion that probably wouldn’t have happened at Vandenberg, although that doesn’t excuse us from blame.

We then went through a massive array of reliability improvements and launched again in March 2006.  Not reaching full orbital velocity was a design error that would have been uncovered if we’d had just 60 seconds of 2nd stage flight (sigh).

Q: Are you still meeting your target payload weight of 10.4 tons to LEO for Falcon 9?

Yes.  The first few flights will be a little lower than that and later flights will be higher.

Q: Do you plan on eventually using or developing a cryogenic upperstage for Falcon 9?

Yes, we hope to develop a hydrogen stage down the road, but that is several years away.


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