In my first post about SpaceX, I laid out the company background with some great photos of their rockets and launch facilities during an engine test. I also go into a brief profile of PAYPAL founder Elon Musk, the man behind this very serious rocket company. The first launch of Falcon-1 is set for later this month, and I’ll post information as it comes available.
SpaceX announced details yesterday about its new launch vehicle, the Falcon 9, an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) class vehicle. With up to a 17 ft diameter fairing, Falcon 9 is capable of launching approximately 21,000 lbs to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in its medium configuration and 55,000 lbs to LEO in its heavy configuration, a lift capacity greater than any other launch vehicle. In the medium configuration, Falcon 9 is priced at $27 million per flight with a 12 ft fairing and $35 million with a 17 ft fairing. Prices include all launch range and third party insurance costs, making Falcon 9 the most cost efficient vehicle in its class – worldwide.
SpaceX initially intended to follow its first vehicle development, Falcon 1, with the intermediate class Falcon 5 launch vehicle. However, in response to customer requirements for low cost enhanced launch capability, SpaceX accelerated development of an EELV-class vehicle, upgrading Falcon 5 to Falcon 9. SpaceX has sold Falcon 9 to a US government customer. SpaceX still plans to make Falcon 5 available in late 2007.
Falcon 9 uses similar engines, electronics, guidance & control and separation systems to Falcon 1. However, in the case of Falcon 9, there are nine Merlin engines clustered together. Some examples of rockets that made effective use of clustering are the Saturn I manned rocket (eight thrust chambers) of the Apollo Program and the Soyuz manned rocket (thirty-two thrust chambers) currently used to service the International Space Station. Clustering provides the ability to lose multiple engines during flight and still complete the mission, resulting in a higher level of propulsion reliability.
A recent study performed by the Futron Corporation, concluded that Falcon 5 was superior in design reliability to other vehicles in its class, due to engine redundancy. Falcon 9, by extension, has even higher reliability with increased propulsion redundancy.
Falcon 5 and Falcon 9 will be the world’s first launch vehicles where all stages are designed for reuse. The Falcon 1 has a reusable first stage, but an expendable upper stage. Reuse is not factored into launch prices. When the economics of stage recovery and checkout are fully understood, SpaceX will make further reductions in launch prices.
SpaceX has launch sites at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the Marshall Islands, allowing for direct launch into any orbital inclination. With its launch complex in the Marshall Islands, SpaceX is the only US heavy launch provider with a launch site close to the equator, providing an advantage for equatorial satellite launch.
Falcon 5 and Falcon 9 make use of the exact same first and second stage tank structure, with the only difference being the number of engines on the first stage. In the case of a Falcon 5 launch, four of the nine engines are removed prior to flight and the first stage is only partially filled with propellant. This minimizes development, manufacturing and ground support equipment costs, and brings to market two launch vehicle classes at once.
The Falcon 9 tank walls and domes are made from aluminum 2219, the same alloy used by the Saturn V. However, we make use of an all friction stir welded tank, the highest strength and most reliable welding technique available. Like Falcon 1, the interstage, which connects the upper and lower stage for Falcon 9, is a carbon fiber honeycomb structure. The separation system is a larger version of what was used on Falcon 1 – pneumatic pushers with pyrotechnic release bolts.
Nine SpaceX engines power the Falcon 9 first stage with 85,000 lbs-f sea level thrust per engine for a total thrust on liftoff of 765,000 pounds. After engine start, Falcon is held down until all vehicle systems are verified to be functioning normally before release for liftoff. Although in-flight failures are very rarely explosive, a Kevlar shield protects each engine from debris in the event of its neighbor failing.
The second stage tank of Falcon 9 is simply a shorter version of the first stage tank and uses most of the same tooling, material and manufacturing techniques. This results in significant cost savings in vehicle production. A single Merlin engine powers the Falcon 9 upper stage with an expansion ratio of 120 and burn time of 265 seconds. For added reliability of restart, the engine has dual redundant hypergolic igniters (TEA-TEB) with four injection ports.
Again I say, if this company goes public do not hesitate! They have assembled the best, brightest, and most experienced team of engineers of any private rocket company in the world, and I expect them to become a main player in private industry satellite launch providers.
( Let’s Have A Freakin’ Countdown Already! )