Headlines > News > United Press: \"Space Race 2: New life for old pads\"

United Press: \"Space Race 2: New life for old pads\"

Published by Cathleen Manville on Tue Feb 1, 2005 9:29 pm
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By Irene Mona Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL– It Is not the dead-of-night secrecy that makes this week’s planned launch of an Atlas 3 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station so unusual.

The expendable booster often has been tapped by the military to place classified satellites into orbit, but this will be the last time the venerable Atlas flies from its 40-year-old seaside Florida base.

Built in the early 1960s, the two launch pads comprising Complex 36 served as the gateway to space for the series of lunar probes that paved the way for the Apollo program, as well as the stepping stone to Mars, Venus and Mercury, all of which were visited by Atlas-launched Mariner probes.

Thursday’s planned launch will mark the 145th from Pad 36B, while Pad 36A completed its 63rd and final Atlas mission last August. Lockheed Martin, which builds the Atlas booster, has moved to Cape Canaveral’s Complex 41 and phased out all Atlas varieties except for the heavy-lift Atlas 5.

At the same time, a company that intends to topple the status quo for launch services is making a bid for those soon-to-be abandoned Atlas facilities at the cape. Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, of El Segundo, Calif., and owned by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, plans to sell rocket rides for about one-third the current going rate for U.S. space launches.

Two weeks ago, SpaceX marked a huge milestone in its two-year development program with the successful, long-duration firing of the Falcon’s rocket engine, called Merlin. The engine, which produces about 71,500 pounds of thrust, burned for 162 seconds.

Had Merlin been beneath the company’s 70-foot tall, 5.5-diameter Falcon rocket rather than attached to a test stand in McGregor, Texas, it could have hurled a 1,500-pound payload to orbit. SpaceX plans one more engine firing — this time using the launch vehicle being prepared for the company’s inaugural flight — before declaring the system operational.

Falcon’s debut mission will not be a practice run. The Department of Defense is paying SpaceX about $6 million to place an experimental communications satellite called TacSat-1 into polar orbit. A similar mission aboard an Orbital Sciences Corp. Pegasus booster, which can carry about the same weight as a Falcon 1, sells for about $25 million.

The rocket’s first flight, targeted for launch in March, will take place from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. SpaceX has taken over an abandoned Atlas pad on the West Coast and now is looking to do the same in Florida.

“The 45th Space Wing is in discussions with SpaceX,” Air Force spokesman Ken Warren told UPI’s Space Race 2. “They would like to lease both pads, 36A and 36B, for the Falcon 1 and Falcon 5 rockets.”

SpaceX currently is going through safety reviews for its vehicles and an environmental review — a process that could take six months to 12 months to complete, Warren added.

Complex 36 is particularly well-suited for the Falcon fleet, because both the Atlas and the Falcon have motors that burn highly refined kerosene and liquid oxygen. About the only Complex 36 amenities SpaceX cannot use are the Atlas launch towers.

Falcon boosters, which are nearly ready for flight by the time they leave the manufacturing facility, undergo final launch preparations in a horizontal position, then rolled to the launch pad on a flatbed truck. For liftoff, the truck hoists the rocket and its built-in umbilical tower into a vertical position.

In addition to the California and Florida sites, SpaceX also plans to launch from the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, located on the Marshall Islands’ Kwajalein Atoll in the western Pacific Ocean. Falcon rockets need to be launched over open water because their first stage parachutes into the ocean and is recovered, refurbished and reused on a future flight.

No Florida launches are on Falcon’s launch manifest yet, but SpaceX does have reservations for three more missions after Falcon’s debut California launch.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency awarded an $8-million contract to SpaceX to demonstrate a quick-turnaround, low-cost launch operation. The goal of the mission, intended for this summer, is to halve the amount of time a standard commercial Falcon rocket spends on the launch pad for preflight preparations.

That launch and one for the government of Malaysia are slated for flight from the Kwajalein site. Also on the books is a commercial mission from Vandenberg for Bigelow Aerospace, of North Las Vegas, Nev., which wants to test a prototype inflatable space habitat.

Bigelow’s flight, targeted for late this year, will be the first to use the Falcon 5 booster, a configuration that features five Merlin motors clustered together to form a first-stage engine. SpaceX will use another Merlin engine for the Falcon 5’s upper stage. The Falcon 1 uses a Kestrel engine for its second stage of powered flight.

Once it has an established track record, SpaceX expects it will not be too long before NASA signs up as a customer as well. That is one reason why the company is pursuing a Florida launch site.

“NASA likes to launch out of the Cape,” Musk said in an interview last week with the industry Web site SpaceflightNow.com. “I’m pretty sure there will be demand … once our vehicles acquire a flight history and we get NASA business.”

From the Florida launch site, Musk would be well-positioned to fly his rockets to the International Space Station. Musk estimates the Falcon could have an operational base at Cape Canaveral as early as 2007.

Eventually, SpaceX expects its launch vehicles to be used to fly not only payloads, but people into space. Musk said he intends to make that happen before the end of 2009.

SpaceX, which bypassed the $10-million Ansari X Prize for the first pair of private, sub-orbital manned spaceflights, has its eye on the $50-million America’s Space Prize.

Sponsored by Bigelow Aerospace, which needs orbital space transportation to ferry guests to its planned inflatable space hotels, the prize will be awarded to the first team that flies at least five people to orbit aboard a reusable spaceship, circles the planet at least twice, and repeats the feat within 60 days — all before Jan. 10, 2010.

Space Race 2 is a weekly series by UPI exploring the people, passions and business of sub-orbital manned spaceflight, by Irene Klotz, who covers aerospace for UPI Science News. E-mail: sciencemail@upi.com

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