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Falcon 1 Flight 5

SpaceX is scheduled for a launch today or tomorrow from their pad at Omelek Island in Kwajalein. The payload is RazakSat for the Malaysian government.

Most everyone in the commercial space business is wishing them good luck and hope the Falcon 1 flies well on its first ‘operational’ flight. I use quotes because it is still a new system and it takes time to really understand the foibles of that which you have wrought. Personally I would say their chances of a successful flight are excellent but not one hundred percent yet.

The big one for SpaceX will come with their first flight attempt for the Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral. The rocket is on the pad and has been there for some months as they slowly work through all the issues preceding a launch of a big new rocket, probably later this year. This is the one which will eventually carry people in the SpaceX Dragon Capsule.

For now though, stay tuned. I will pass on information on tonight or tomorrow’s launch window as I hear it.

18:40 EDT: Launch appears to be currently schedule for 02:00 UTC/Zulu/GMT. Live feed for the Kwaj launch is available but is still showing dead air.

2230 EDT: Live coverage has begun. Watch here

2250 EDT: We are into a 15 minute weather hold at T-30 min.

2300 EDT: The woman doing some of the interviews is someone I know pretty well, Cassie Kloberdanz. She is a young member of the commercial space family and a lot of fun.

2316 EDT: As you can see if you are watching, the weather is starting to clear. I understand there was also some issue on the Helium pressurization which the hold gave them time to deal with.

2323 EDT: The clock is rolling again. We’re getting down to t-13.

2346 EDT: SpaceX has delivered its first international paying customer’s satellite to orbit! The flight was almost flowless as far as I could see from the video’s. Most notable to me was how ‘cool’ the expansion nozzle of the Kestrel second stage engine ran relative to previous flights. With two successes of Falcon 1 under their belts, SpaceX is now a competitor to be reckoned with.

So, what does this all mean? First, this was a key time for them. A launch failure would not have put their company at risk, but it would have had some serious repercussions on their future. The Augustine Commission is meeting right now and there is a political fight brewing in DC. There are some powerful congressman and constituencies that much prefer the status quo. The government backed Ares 1 project is, as one would expect, years behind schedule. The innovation of that particular camel is in the way they have taken bits and pieces of existing expensive hardware, manufactured for several decades in a number of key constituencies and managed to make a crewed vehicle out of it.

There is a small budget, relative to that of the big aero companies, that was set aside for new players. Those companies will be paid for a result: cargo on orbit at the Space Station. There are two currently: Orbital Sciences Corporation (run by David Thompson and friends) and by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

This new way of doing business is something of a threat to the old one. The vehicles do not require huge numbers of people to process them. They are not as complex. They are designed with the idea that they will be commercially viable, and that means they cannot afford the baggage that every NASA designed ship has carried with it. Just as an example, the SpaceX rockets use the same fuel and oxidizer in both stages: Liquid Oxygen (LOX) and rocket grade Kerosene. Both are easily dealt with and familiar to industry. Notably they do not use Liquid Hydrogen (LH) for a higher energy, more ‘efficient engine’ because that efficiency comes at a high commercial cost. LH is squirrelly stuff. It will find ways to leak out if just about anything is not perfect. It is a ‘supercryogen’ and thus requires special materials and special handling. It is of very low density so it requires huge tankage to hold enough. By the time you are through, the margin gained in ISP (a measure of the efficiency of a rocket engine) is mostly eaten up by the extra structural mass. On top of that, the special requirements of dealing with LH are much more costly in terms of manpower, materials, care and testing.

But wait, there is more: The Ares I rocket uses the absolute worst feature of the Space Shuttle it replaces: a stack of solid rocket engine segments. You know, the ones with the famous O-rings? Once you light them you cannot shut them down or change the flight profile. However at least Ares I is a vertical stack so they could put an escape tower on the top to pull the astronauts away to safety if they find the thing is going to blow up or come apart or the RSO (Range Safety Officer) decides it really should be blown up before it hits Miami.

As bad as it is, Ares 1 had some major political clout behind it. Senator Richard Shelby from Alabama recently pulled funding that was to be used to do cargo delivery for hire and moved it to his district to feed the dinosaurs. A failure of this launch would have allowed these political types to say “See? We told you so! These commercial upstarts are not able to do the job. Rockets really are that expensive for a reason. That is why we need the money for our government designed rocket done by proper government contractors and with proper government design oversight… and built with parts made in our districts.”

Elon could probably get by without the space station delivery contracts, but they would certainly help. The problem for the American Rocket Design Bureau’s is that if he succeeds, he will change the game to one which is open ended and done with a wider commercial model in mind.

With this flawless launch under their belt, the case for commercial cargo delivery to orbit followed by commercial delivery of people becomes very hard to ignore.

0228 EDT: I heard a little while ago that the second burn of the upper stage was nominal as was the payload sep and the Malaysian customer satellite is in the correct orbit and is communicating with the ground.

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25 comments to Falcon 1 Flight 5

  • Nuke Gray!

    Isn’t space getting crowded? All these nations putting up satellites- we’ll soon need a UN Space Board! All these rockets going through the Ozone hole- that can’t be a good thing, can it?

  • And the BBC are saying…? that’s right… nothing at all.

  • I am trying to get in touch with Charles Copeland, one of your contributers.
    Hope he sees this.
    Best wishes,

    Jane Kelly

  • This is fantastic news.

    I do wonder, not knowing much about it, how what SpaceX are doing compares to SeaLaunch. At first glance, they also appear to be a private company launching satellites, but perhaps they are using old tech, and perhaps they are more the establishment, being partly Boeing.

  • Steven Groeneveld

    Falcon 1 vs Ares 1. To Anyone who has read Neville Shute’s “Slide Rule” there is a familiar scenario playing out. In that case a vindictive government pulled the plug on both products but it was also the last time any government openly competed with private enterprise on anything close to equal terms. They learnt a lesson from that, but it was the wrong lesson.

  • Laird

    This is very good news indeed. I have tremendous respect for Elon Musk and hope this venture is wildly successful. Question: is SpaceX a public company (yet)? There’s no indication of that on its website. If it is I’d be tempted to invest in it (whenever I again get my hands on some disposable cash, that is!).

  • Dale Amon

    SpaceX is closely held. Given the insane level of regulation, not just by SEC, but due to Sarbanes-Oxley, the could not do business at the risk levels they are at if they were a Public corporation. This is why none of the American New Space companies are public so far, and why almost all of the interesting work is being done by billionaires who are footing the bill because they want this to happen.

    As to Sea-Launch, it is a very interesting commercial venture and do not interpret anything I have said as being against them. I don’t really dislike Boeing, Lockheed-Martin and the rest either. I just do not like the way in which lawyers, accountants and B-schoolers have decided the best way to make money is via lobbyists.

    Sea-Launch is based on an old Russian rocket, launched from a seagoing facility built by a big Norwegian shipbuilder (Kvaerner?). It was a good idea for its time, the post-cold-war era, but we can do better now. Elon’s rockets are designed as commercial and eventually man-able vehicles from the ground up. They are not modified artillery rockets. They are not even descendants of same. The Kestrel and Merlin engines, along with another smaller one for their Dragon capsule escape tower, are 3 of the 4 ground up new engines flown in the last quarter century, if not longer. (There are many more fine reusable engines under test or in use in low level flight so this statistic will change very drastically in the next few years).

    The best outcome in my mind is the ‘IBM Scenario’. Boeing and the others keep going with their old business model for the time being; the newcomers change the world out from under their feet; the big aeros then have a management shakeup and adjust to the new world and new business model. The worst case scenario, for them of course, is the “DEC Scenario”. Digital Equipment Corporation failed so miserably at adapting from the world of the minicomputer to the world of the small office machine that they were eventually absorbed by Dell Computer. Quite a big comedown for what was at one time one of the biggest and most innovative names in computing.

    We are looking at creative destruction in the aerospace industry at work. They use of State authority has delayed it and may still manage to slow it a bit, but they cannot stop the juggernaut that is “the wealth of nations”.

  • Good News for the New Space industry, and for the USAF whose Operationally Responsive Space program now has a viable launch vehicle that does not depend on old ICBM segments.

    However the really big news will be when Elon launches Falcon 9 which does have the potential to truly revolutionize the space economy.

  • Funny that DEC should be mentioned; reading this topic reminded me of when I worked for Martin-Marietta (which became Lockheed Martin) in the bullets, bombs, and rockets business. I was a DEC VAX system manager fresh out of college, and putting meat on the table running and managing those mini-mainframes.

    One day, a small white suitcase-sized box showed up in my raised floor machine room, and it turned out to be a MicroVAX… ran the same OS and the same NASTRAN programs, but cost about 15% the cost of the car-sized VAX squatting next to it. Within a couple months, the first Sun workstation showed up, and I saw the signs… 4 months later I got myself on a project with SGI’s IRIS workstations and Solbourne servers in the racks, and the VAX just wasnt cost-effective anymore.

    Those with an investment in the shuttle and the massive infrastructure that goes along with it are doomed to the economic firing squad. Legislators and lobbyists will keep the dinosaur alive for quite a while, but China, India, and the other nations arent going to patiently wait forever. Game over.

  • Nuke Gray!

    And from Christmas Island Launch Space Port… nothing! And plenty of it!
    For years, different politicians have been promising Australians that Australia would have a Spaceport, and a Space Industry, of it’s very own! From Cape York to Woomera to Xmas Isle, we’ve heard it all! Here’s a deep, dark, secret of the world- You shouldn’t trust politicians!
    Why, I’ll bet New Zealand beats us into space, with their enterprise-loving PM!

  • Dale Amon

    Actually no surprise: I was a very serious hardware and software DEC guru in the 1970’s and had phone numbers direct to the guys in ‘the barn’. I could field strip a PDP-11/40 to the bones and put it back together working properly in an afternoon; my sidekick was the proverbial longhaired and bearded fellow with white overalls and tool kit; I was the very long haired senior systems engineer in t-shirt and tattered blue jeans and rose-tinted aviator glasses…

    I still have some contact with some of the old DEC folks both from the Pittsbugh field office and Maynard.

  • Dale Amon

    btw, if you worked at Martin-Marietta in Denver, they bought the former world HQ of Johns-Manville after they went bankrupt from the asbestos settlement. I designed and installed the building systems management system in that building out on the old Ken Caryl Ranch. The Indian woman who was security guard showed us the beheaded and still moving 4 foot rattler she’d killed that night on the construction site access road when we came in to trouble shoot the initial installation over night.

  • Dale Amon

    There is more to the Christmas Island spaceport story than is public and it is not necessarily the government which was the screw up on that, at least not the biggest problem.

    You see there was this entrepreneur who was putting the thing together and had trouble letting go of control for equity and was not very good at getting his second round of funders to line up. I’d say more but I’d have to fact check with someone who was there and I’d have to see if I might have already said too much. If you know an Aussie by the name of Kirby Ikin, talk to him over a few pints and you might (or might) not hear more.

  • Nuke Gray!

    Dale, I’m sure a politician also had a hand or three in disrupting Xmas Isle! At the very least, they promise more than they deliver, like the faulty first stage of a rocket.
    Even Woomera is just used to test exotic jet and rocket engines.
    The ideal place for a space-port, ignoring politics and nationality, would be Kampala, on Lake Victoria. An equatorial launchpoint, which is high up, and therefore cool. And you could use the lake as a ‘runway’ for shuttles or rockets to land on, in emergencies!

  • tdh

    And plasma engines?

  • Brett L


    Ask and ye shall recieve(Link).

    Ad Astra Rocket Co. had a long test firing about a month ago.

  • Eric

    Ad Astra Rocket Co. had a long test firing about a month ago.

    Chang-Diaz is still at it with VASIMR? I’ll say this – the man is stubborn in all the right ways.

  • Eric

    The innovation of that particular camel is in the way they have taken bits and pieces of existing expensive hardware, manufactured for several decades in a number of key constituencies and managed to make a crewed vehicle out of it.

    That’s a pretty good summation of the reason US space development is adrift. Ares could never have been anything but a white elephant, because any increase in operational efficiency would come at the expense of jobs – i.e. at the expense of the program’s actual primary goal.

    I thought the recent Chinese advances would instill some sense of urgency in Congress, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

  • Dale Amon

    Doesn’t Chang-Diaz have a flight op coming up? I seem to remember hearing that his experiment bumped the SSPS test from the manifest.

  • Dale-

    Yes, I did work in Waterton, and all over Denver at various times on various projects for Mother Martin. Those were the days! Rooskies were still clearly evil, and space exploration was a goal in and of itself. I got to touch titan rockets though, baby, and that made it all worthwhile.

    Talking with a coworker today, he commented on his experience as a contractor at a major telecom in the region, and how he got in trouble with the union for writing a program which would correct 95% of the spelling errors in the addresses database. Since that would eliminate jobs for a lot of data entry people, he was not allowed to implement that program.

    Job creation for the sake of job creation is a losing game.

  • Dale Amon

    Big place and all that, but did you know Jill Steele? She worked there in the 80’s.

  • Eric

    Doesn’t Chang-Diaz have a flight op coming up? I seem to remember hearing that his experiment bumped the SSPS test from the manifest.

    The article Brett L linked says they’re going to use one of his plasma drive prototypes for station keeping on ISS sometime after the shuttle is retired.

  • Paul Marks

    Congratulations to all involved in this private launch.

  • PDP-11/40? Luxury!

    Part pf my final exams for my BSc was a test on digital machinery. Quite a simple one, though it took quite a few hours.

    “Here is the instruction set of a CPU. Design and build one.”

    It was a PDP-8, a marvellously simple piece of engineering that uses very few components. It’s easy to make VLSI chips containing arrays of lots of these, suitable for massively parallel structures like graphics cards.

    Oh and as regards escape systems from Ares-I – forget it. A recent report by the USAF 45th Space Wing showed a 100% probability that the crew would be lost if anything went badly wrong between 30 and 60 seconds after launch. Basically, the radiant heat from the burning hail of solid rocket fuel that would be the remains of the booster melts the parachutes if they’re anywhere in the vicinity.

  • tdh

    Military procurement appears to be in even worse shape.