As the market for delivering payloads to earth orbit continues to grow, several new companies are staking out territories for business. SpaceX is targeting the small to medium payload market, and is preparing to launch their first capsule into orbit within the next four months.
The Falcon series rocket is the brainchild of PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, a man who is so used to success that starting a rocket company didn't seem far fetched at all. Starting in 2002, SpaceX sprinted into the lead of companies planning to deliver commercial payloads to orbit, and was recently awarded a $100 million contract by the U.S. Air Force/Space and Missile Systems Center for Responsive Small Spacelift (RSS) launch services.
The purpose of this contract will be to provide low cost orbital launch vehicles and responsive (launch 12 months from award of basic contract) launch services, on a recurring basis, using a mature vehicle design and a commercially derived booster to meet mission/payload requirements.
The current cost of getting a payload into orbit ranges from $31 million for a NASA Pegasus launch, and up to $85 million to have your medium weight satellite boosted into orbit aboard a NASA Atlas II-H. Compare this to $5.9 million for a Falcon-I launch, and $15.8 million for a Falcon-V. SpaceX offers a "half bay" flight of the Falcon V for $8.9 million to accommodate customers with payloads in between the lifting capabilities of Falcon I and V.
In order to offer such a dramatically lower cost per launch, SpaceX has established "a flat management structure and singular product focus, resulting in lower overhead costs than other launch vehicle providers and a significant cost advantage for any given rocket design".
How was SpaceX able to develop their launch vehicle in only 3 years? The company PR literature states that "the rapid development of the Falcon was achieved through an exceptional team of engineers with deep experience in aerospace engineering, combined with uninterrupted financial backing."
I can understand that statement, from a wee distance. PayPal, the online payment system used for auction and commercial web sales payments since 2000, was sold to eBay last year for a cool $1.5 billion dollars, and Mr. Elon ws the largest single shareholder. It seems that things can get done in a hurry if you don't have to spend half of your time lobbying for funding, or preparing progress reports for Congress.