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SpaceX: Oct 2004 through Jan 2005 Update

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Wed Feb 9, 2005 4:31 pm
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SpaceX news update:

This artist’s concept illustrates a Falcon 1 rocket. Credit: SpaceX

The past four months have been focused on thoroughly testing all aspects of the vehicle, which will continue right up until we launch in a few months. The commitment I’ve made to all the engineers and our customers is that we will not launch until every engineer and technician in our company is two thumbs up. As you might expect, the more you test, the more problems you uncover that have to be solved. This results in a long tail on the end of development, analogous to the beta test period for software, but it is a lot better to solve problems on the ground than risk failure in flight.

In this process, I think I’ve come to realize what makes orbital rocket development so tough. It is not that any particular element is all that difficult, but rather that you are forced to develop a very complex product that can’t be fully tested in its real environment until launch and, when you do launch, there can be zero significant errors. Unlike other products, there is no chance of issuing a bug fix or recall after liftoff. You are also forced to use very narrow structural safety margins, compared to an aircraft or suborbital rocket, to have any chance of reaching orbit at all and must hit a bull’s eye when you do.

Having seen us go through the wringer to make this work (and it’s not over yet), I have a lot of respect for anyone that has tried to develop a serious launch vehicle.

Our test facility in Texas (structural test stand on the left and propulsion test stands on the right)

Engine Development Drawing to a Close

After two and a half years of hard work, we have essentially completed development of Merlin, our main engine, and Kestrel, our upper stage engine. It was an arduous journey, taking a lot longer and costing a lot more in R&D dollars than originally anticipated. Fortunately, recurring cost is in line with expectations and we have no plans to raise the price of our launch vehicles. Being able to amortize engine development costs over both Falcon I and Falcon V has been key to making the business case close.

It is worth noting that Merlin will be only the second American orbital booster engine developed in the past twenty-five years. The other one is Boeing’s RS-68, used on the Delta IV, and the one before that was the Space Shuttle Main Engine. For its part, Kestrel will be the first all new American upper stage engine in thirty years. More details are discussed below in the technical appendix.

Click for Merlin full duration run video


I am increasingly confident of the reusability of the Falcon I first stage. We will soon exceed 200 cryogenic pressure cycles on the first stage tank mounted in Vertical Test Stand 1 in Texas and there are no signs of fatigue. The stage is also constantly wet by the water deluge system and by melting ice from the LOX tank, but is showing no significant corrosion.

Although we keep telling people that Falcon I has a reusability percentage roughly equal to that of the Space Shuttle, the only other semi-reusable flying today, it still gets referred to as an expendable rocket from time to time. I am quite confident at this point that Falcon I will not only be majority reusable, assuming the parachute opens, but that the economics will work out such that we may be able to make a modest reduction in price from the current $5.9M, which assumes no reusability value.

Launch Schedule

The updated launch schedule will now be posted on the Company Description page and we also have a FAQ page.

Futron Reliability Study

We asked Futron to perform a design reliability study, comparing all currently available US launch vehicles. It was limited to US vehicles, because that was where their database was most accurate and complete. The study examined all failures of the past twenty years by sub-system to derive a statistical reliability for tha

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