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SpaceX: The Countdown begins

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Fri Nov 18, 2005 2:03 pm
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By Klaus Schmidt and Stephen Deisher, Space Fellowship counsilors; As the maiden flight — currently slated for Thanksgiving weekend — of SpaceX’s Falcon 1 rocket is getting nearer, it’s time to look back on the events leading up to it.

SpaceX was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, a co-founder of PayPal, a highly successful internet start-up company. His goal was to develop a rocket unrivaled in pricing and reliability, one that would out-compete the major launch service providers like Boeing, Lockheed, Arianespace, and even the Russian low cost launchers like Soyuz and Proton. In the interest of simplicity, the first step towards their goal became the small launch vehicle Falcon 1, designed to compete in the same class as the Orbital Sciences Pegasus launch vehicle.

SpaceX reviewed all available information from nearly fifty years of spaceflight and decided to take a conservative approach: they didn’t use the most cutting-edge technology, but matured technology that has a long, proven track record — like their kerosene/LOX engines.

They started to develop not only one, but two engines. Their upper stage engine, Kestrel and their main stage engine, Merlin. When five Merlin engines are clustered together, they will form the first stage for the Falcon 5. However, they didn’t just copy existing engine designs, they instead took advantage of the advances in the last 50 years in materials science and systems design.

They followed their driving philosophy of simplicity in every element of their rocket, and even with non-mechanical systems: why use a whole army of staff for the rocket when you can do it with a handful persons? Furthermore, Falcon 1 was designed from the outset to be reusable.

After not even two years, the Falcon 1 began to take shape. Besides an intense testing of the rocket’s individual systems, the design engineers started to develop Falcon 1’s bigger sibling, the medium-lift vehicle Falcon 5. Another change from the way the big aerospace companies do business was the regular (and public) project updates from SpaceX.

In 2004, SpaceX was awarded the first launch contracts with DARPA launches for Falcon 1, and a prototype space station from Bigelow Aerospace for Falcon 5. SpaceX offered their launchers for an unprecedented price; however, any system as complex as a rocket will always have its difficulties and problems. SpaceX had a few problems with their Merlin engine, so they had to delay their maiden flight again and again. They wanted to be as certain as possible that their launch would succeed.
The summer of 2005 came around, and SpaceX was forced to shift their maiden flight from Vandenberg, California, to an isle in the South Seas, Kwajalein Atoll. But an engine on the test stand produced some unexpected (and unsatisfactory) results, so they delayed their launch one more (and hopefully the last) time.

Just a few weeks prior to the launch, SpaceX announced their Falcon 9 rocket, a heavy-lift rocket, competing directly with launchers like Delta 4 Heavy and Atlas V Heavy. But that’s another story: for now, let’s kick back and enjoy the show this Thanksgiving weekend — and I’m not talking about the football.

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