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SpaceX Update: SpaceX Wins NASA Contract to Replace Space Shuttle

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Sat Sep 9, 2006 10:47 pm
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As you may have read, SpaceX was one of two winners of the NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services competition. The SpaceX portion of the award is $278 million for three flight demonstrations of Falcon 9 carrying our Dragon spaceship, which are scheduled to occur in late 2008 and 2009. The final flight will culminate in the transfer of cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) and return of cargo safely to Earth.

The agreement also contains an option for three demonstration flights of the seven person manned version of Dragon, which in this case will end up with us taking people to the ISS and back. The cargo Dragon and crewed Dragon are almost identical, with the exception of the crew escape system, the life support system and onboard controls that allow the crew to take over control from the flight computer when needed.

Since we already have three Falcon 9 launches on contract, the NASA flights will probably represent the 4th, 5th and 6th flights of Falcon 9, but will definitely be the first three flights of the Dragon spaceship. In addition to servicing NASA needs, I expect that F9/Dragon will also be of service to Bigelow Aerospace, which recently had a very successful flight of their sub-scale commercial space station. Bigelow Aerospace and SpaceX have an ongoing dialogue to ensure that F9/Dragon meets the human transportation needs of their planned space station as efficiently as possible.

Dragon on F9 Without & With Escape Tower:

Dragon Side View:

Dragon with Cargo:

Dragon with Seven Crew and Solar Panels (reminds of me of a particular mouse):

Dragon Approaching Space Station:

Dragon Berthed at Space Station:

Falcon 1

The current schedule calls for a late November launch of Demo Flight 2 for DARPA. However, given that we have increased the number of system aborts by a factor of 30, there is a high likelihood of false alarms in the countdown process pushing our actual launch into December.

The updated Merlin 1A engine with the robustness improvements passed its acceptance test last month, running 1.5 mission duty cycles at slightly better than expected combustion efficiency. It is now mounted to the first stage, which is undergoing final checkout and will soon be transferred to the Kwajalein cargo ship with an expected arrival on island in October.

The last remaining major milestone is the acceptance test of the upper stage. In this test, we will run the entire integrated second stage, including the avionics bay, for a full mission duty cycle. Although the sub-components have already been acceptance tested, this provides a full checkout of the upper stage as a system, which will surface any infant mortality issues at the systems level. Once the upper stage completes its acceptance test next month, it will be flown to Kwajalein. The upper stage is small enough to fit, just barely, through the cargo door of one of the regular flights to Kwaj and is quite light (about 1200 lbs), so there is not much of a cost penalty.

The third and fourth Falcon 1 vehicles are already in production at our Los Angeles plant for the Defense Dept (OFT/NRL) and Malaysian missions next year. The former, which follows Demo Flights 1 and 2 for DARPA, will constitute our first operational mission. The fact that our first flight was only a test or beta flight, containing a student satellite in lieu of an empty bay, seems to have been overlooked by much of the media. Given that the first Lockheed Athena, Boeing Delta III, Orbital Sciences Pegasus XL, Ariane 5, etc. all failed and those companies are the mainstay of western space launch, we are not at all discouraged. The reason SpaceX started out with a strategy of building the smallest useful orbital rocket was primarily to minimize the cost of mistakes. Far better to iron out problems at F1 scale than F9 scale.

Kwajalein Launch Site Upgrades

The payload processing facilities on Omelek have been significantly upgraded. The clean room for processing satellites is now much larger with better than 10K cleanliness levels and very tight humidity & temperature control. It is worth noting that the satellite is kept at a controlled temperature and humidity at all times and is never exposed to ambient conditions. Satellite processing works as follows:

1. Customer brings satellite to the clean room at the launch pad (facilitated by SpaceX)
2. Satellite is removed from its protective shipping container and encapsulated in the fairing
3. We attach the mobile AC system to the fairing
4. Fairing is taken out of the clean room and into the adjacent main hangar, where it is rotated horizontal and attached to the rocket

In addition, the office space on Omelek has been doubled with the addition of a dedicated set of offices for customers.


I should probably say something about pricing, since some people think that it is only a matter of time before we raise prices dramatically. They are missing the point. I started SpaceX to lower the cost and increase the reliability of (American) spaceflight by at least a factor of ten and I’m hell bent on making that happen. We need to become a true spacefaring civilization, where spaceflight is affordable by normal citizens and extending life to another planet is realistic, and that requires lowering costs dramatically.


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