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.