SpaceX Dragon Launch Slides to May 19

[/caption]SpaceX has announced that the upcoming launch of the firms Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft on the commercial COTS 2 mission has been postponed to a new target date of no earlier than May 19 with a backup launch date of May 22.

On May 19, the Falcon 9 rocket would lift off on its first night time launch at 4:55 a.m. EDT (0855 GMT) from Space Launch Complex-40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Two launch opportunities had been available this week on May 7 and May 10, following the most recent slip from April 30.

SpaceX managers made the decision – in consultation with NASA – to delay the COTS 2 launch in order to complete further highly critical testing and verifications of all the flight software requirements for the Dragon spacecraft to safely and successfully carry its mission of rendezvousing and docking with the International Space Station (ISS).

“SpaceX and NASA are nearing completion of the software assurance process, and SpaceX is submitting a request to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for a May 19th launch target with a backup on May 22nd,” said SpaceX spokesperson Kirstin Grantham.

“Thus far, no issues have been uncovered during this process, but with a mission of this complexity we want to be extremely diligent.”

May 10 was the last window of opportunity this week because of the pending May 14 blast off of a new Russian Soyuz TMA-04M capsule from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with three fresh crew members bound for the ISS which will restore the outpost to a full crew complement of 6 human residents.

The Falcon 9 and Dragon can only be launched about every three days.

The purpose of Dragon is to carry supplies up to and back from the ISS. Dragon is a commercial spacecraft developed by SpaceX and designed to replace some of the cargo resupply functions previously conducted by NASA’s fleet of prematurely retired Space Shuttle orbiters. At this moment the US has zero capability to launch cargo or crews to the ISS.

SpaceX Dragon approaches the ISS on 1st test flight and Station Docking in 2012. Astronauts will grapple it with the robotic arm and berth it at the Earth facing port of the Harmony node. Illustration: NASA /SpaceX

In response to the SpaceX announcement, NASA issued the following statement from from William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington:

“After additional reviews and discussions between the SpaceX and NASA teams, we are in a position to proceed toward this important launch. The teamwork provided by these teams is phenomenal. There are a few remaining open items, but we are ready to support SpaceX for its new launch date of May 19.”

SpaceX is under contract with NASA to conduct twelve resupply missions to the ISS to carry cargo back and forth for a cost of some $1.6 Billion.

Dragon is loaded with nearly 1200 pounds of non-critical cargo such as food and clothing on this flight.

The COTS 2 mission has been repeatedly delayed since the originally planned target of mid-2011 when SpaceX requested that the COTS 2 and 3 flights be combined into one mission to save time. The first Dragon docking to the ISS was initially planned for the COTS 3 mission.

This SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket inside the processing hanger at Pad 40 is due for liftoff on May 19, 2012 to the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Static Test Fire a Success

It was short but sweet. SpaceX conducted a 2-second static fire test of their Falcon 9 rocket that will send the first COTS flight to the International Space Station. “Woohoo, rocket hold down firing completed and all looks good!!” Tweeted SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk. SpaceX’s Twitter feed said with the successful firing, engineers will now review data as they continue to prepare for the upcoming mission, slated to launch on May 7.

A first attempt was aborted with 30 seconds left in the countdown, due to “overly restrictive redline on second stage engine position.” Engineers recycled all the rocket’s systems and began another countdown.

Fire and smoke erupted just briefly from the base of the rocket, and there seemed to be a bit of confusion on the webcast, as the word “abort” was used, but then there was word of success and the webcast ended abruptly.

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For the static fire test, the nine Merlin engines on the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket were ignited at 20:15 UTC (4:15 p.m. EDT). The test was part of a full dress rehearsal for the SpaceX team. Last week was a final full simulation between NASA and SpaceX for the series of demonstration maneuvers and tests the Dragon capsule will make as it approaches the ISS; then the astronauts on board will capture and berth the cargo capsule to the Harmony module’s Earth-facing docking port.

If the abort problem had occured on the launch day, there would be no second attempt; there is no recycling of the systems for an actual launch. Additionally, the Falcon 9 can only attempt launch every 3 days because of limited propellant on Dragon capsule. SpaceX needs to ensure there is enough propellant on board Dragon for the pre-berthing maneuvers and tests.

If the Falcon 9 launch is delayed by weather or technical problems, another attempt could be made on May 10, but after that they would have to until after the launch of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft that will bring three new crew members to the space station. That mission is scheduled for launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on May 14, and would dock two days later.

The launch of the Falcon 9 and Dragon has been delayed from its initial planned flight in February, but with today’s apparently successful test, SpaceX and NASA are hopeful for going forward with next week’s launch.

SpaceX is one of two companies, along with Orbital Sciences, competing for contracts to deliver cargo to low Earth orbit for NASA under the Commercial Orbital Transportation System program.

The launch is currently set for 13:38 UTC (9:38 a.m. EDT) on Monday.

SpaceX Falcon 9 Set for Critical Engine Test Firing on Monday, April 30

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On Monday, April 30, SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies) is all set to conduct a critical static engine test fire of the Falcon 9 rocket at the firm’s launch pad on Cape Canaveral, Florida.

If all goes well, SpaceX and NASA are targeting a May 7 liftoff of the rocket and Dragon spacecraft at 9:38 AM, bound for the International Space Station (ISS). This launch signifies the first time that a commercial company is attempting to dock at the ISS.

The Falcon 9 rocket with the Dragon bolted on top was rolled out to the pad at Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) on the transporter-erecter on Sunday morning (April 29), SpaceX spokesperson Kirstin Grantham told Universe Today.

“The Falcon 9 is vertical. Fueling begins Monday,” said Grantham.

On Sunday night, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted: “Dragon review completed. All systems now ready for full thrust hold down firing on Monday.”

Today the 180 foot long rocket was moved about 600 feet on rail tracks from the processing hanger to Pad 40 in anticipation of the engine test firing.

During the hotfire test, all nine of the powerful liquid fueled Merlin 1C first stage engines will be ignited at full power for two seconds as part of a full launch dress rehearsel for the flight, dubbed COTS 2. SpaceX engineers will run through all launch procedures on Monday as though this were an actual launch on launch day.

This is the second Falcon 9 launch for NASA as part of the agency’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program designed to enable commercial firms to deliver cargo to the ISS following the retirement of NASA’s fleet of Space Shuttles. The first Falcon 9 COTS test flight took place in December 2010.

The Dragon spacecraft being rotated before it is mated to the Falcon 9 rocket in SpaceX’s hangar in Cape Canaveral, FL. CREDIT: NASA

You can watch a live webcast of the engine test at www.spacex.com starting at 2:30 PM ET/ 11:30 AM PT, with the actual static fire targeted for 3:00 PM ET/ 12:00 PM PT according to SpaceX.

SpaceX is under contract to NASA to conduct twelve resupply missions to the ISS to carry cargo back and forth for a cost of some $1.6 Billion.

This SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket inside the processing hanger at Pad 40 is due for liftoff on May 7, 2012 to the ISS. The Falcon 9 booster was moved on rail tracks to the pad on April 29 and the Merlin 1C first stage engines (at right) will be test fired on April 30. Credit: Ken Kremer

SpaceX Launch to Space Station Delayed

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The historic flight of the first commercial transport to the International Space Station will have to wait at least another week. “After reviewing our recent progress, it was clear that we needed more time to finish hardware-in-the-loop testing and properly review and follow up on all data,” SpaceX said in a statement today. “While it is still possible that we could launch on May 3rd, it would be wise to add a few more days of margin in case things take longer than expected. As a result, our launch is likely to be pushed back by one week, pending coordination with NASA.”

And so, the launch which was going to take place on April 30 is now pushed back to no earlier than May 7. A static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket that SpaceX had hoped to do today was slipped to the 27th, making the all the preparations for the launch next Monday a tight squeeze.

When launched, the Dragon will arrive at the ISS one to three days later and once there, Dragon will begin the demonstrations related to the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Phase 2 agreements (COTS 2) to show proper performance and control in the vicinity of the ISS, while remaining outside the Station’s safe zone. Then, if all goes well, Dragon will receive approval to begin the COTS 3 activities, where it will gradually approach within a few meters of the ISS, allowing astronauts to reach out and grapple Dragon with the Station’s robotic arm and then maneuver it carefully into one of the docking ports.

SpaceX Test Fires SuperDraco Abort Engines Critical To Astronaut Launch Safety

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Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has test fired a prototype of its new SuperDraco engine that will be critical to saving the lives of astronauts flying aboard a manned Dragon spacecraft soaring to orbit in the event of an in-flight emergency.

The successful full-duration, full-thrust firing of the new SuperDraco engine prototype was completed at the company’s Rocket Development Facility in McGregor, Texas. The SuperDraco is a key component of the launch abort system of the Dragon spacecraft that must fire in a split second to insure crew safety during launch and the entire ascent to orbit.

The Dragon spacecraft is SpaceX’s entry into NASA’s commercial crew development program – known as CCDEV2 – that seeks to develop a commercial ‘space taxi’ to launch human crews to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS).

The engine fired for 5 seconds during the test, which is the same length of time the engines need to burn during an actual emergency abort to safely thrust the astronauts away.

Watch the SpaceX SuperDraco Engine Test Video:

Nine months ago NASA awarded $75 million to SpaceX to design and test the Dragon’s launch abort system . The SuperDraco firing was the ninth of ten milestones that are to be completed by SpaceX by around May 2012 and that were stipulated and funded by a Space Act Agreement (SAA) with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

“SpaceX and all our industry partners are being extremely innovative in their approaches to developing commercial transportation capabilities,” said Commercial Crew Program Manager Ed Mango in a NASA statement. “We are happy that our investment in SpaceX was met with success in the firing of its new engine.”

Dragon will launch atop the Falcon 9 rocket, also developed by SpaceX.

SpaceX test-fires its SuperDraco engine that will eventually power the manned Dragon spacecrafts launch escape system critical for Astronaut safety during launch to orbit. Credit: SpaceX

“Eight SuperDracos will be built into the sidewalls of the Dragon spacecraft, producing up to 120,000 pounds of axial thrust to quickly carry astronauts to safety should an emergency occur during launch,” said Elon Musk, SpaceX chief executive officer and chief technology officer in a statement. “Those engines will have the ability to deep throttle, providing astronauts with precise control and enormous power.”

“Crews will have the unprecedented ability to escape from danger at any point during the launch because the launch abort engines are integrated into the side walls of the vehicle,” Musk said. “With eight SuperDracos, if any one engine fails the abort still can be carried out successfully.”

SuperDraco engines will power the launch escape system of SpaceX’s Dragon. Eight SuperDraco engines built into the side walls of the Dragon spacecraft will produce up to 120,000 pounds of axial thrust to carry astronauts to safety should an emergency occur during launch. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX is one of four commercial firms working to develop a new human rated spacecraft with NASA funding. The other firms vying for a commercial crew contract are Boeing, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin.

“SuperDraco engines represent the best of cutting edge technology,” says Musk. “These engines will power a revolutionarylaunch escape system that will make Dragon the safest spacecraft in history and enable it to land propulsively on Earth or another planet with pinpoint accuracy.”

The privately developed space taxi’s will eventually revive the capability to ferry American astronauts to and from the ISS that was totally lost when NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiters were forcibly retired before a replacement crew vehicle was ready to launch.

Because the US Congress slashed NASA’s commercial crew development funding by more than 50% -over $400 million – the first launch of a commercial space taxi is likely to be delayed several more years to about 2017. Until that time, all American astronauts must hitch a ride to the ISS aboard Russian Soyuz capsules.

This week the Russian manned space program suffered the latest in a string of failures when when technicians performing a crucial test mistakenly over pressurized and damaged the descent module of the next manned Soyuz vehicle set to fly to the ISS in late March, thereby forcing about a 45 day delay to the launch of the next manned Soyuz from Kazakhstan.

SpaceX Delays Upcoming 1st Dragon Launch to ISS

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The first test launch of a commercially built spacecraft to the International Space Station has been delayed by its builder, Space Exploration Technologies or SpaceX, in order to carry out additional testing to ensure that the vehicle is fully ready for the high stakes Earth orbital mission.

SpaceX and NASA had been working towards a Feb. 7 launch date of the company’s Dragon spacecraft and announced the postponement in a statement today (Jan. 16).

A new target launch date has not been set and it is not known whether the delay amounts to a few days, weeks or more. The critical test flight has already been rescheduled several times and was originally planned for 2011.

The unmanned Dragon is a privately developed cargo vessel constructed by SpaceX under a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA to deliver supplies to the ISS and partially replace the transport to orbit capabilities that were fully lost following the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011.

“In preparation for the upcoming launch, SpaceX continues to conduct extensive testing and analysis, said SpaceX spokeswoman Kirstin Grantham in the statement.

“We [SpaceX] believe that there are a few areas that will benefit from additional work and will optimize the safety and success of this mission.”

“We are now working with NASA to establish a new target launch date, but note that we will continue to test and review data. We will launch when the vehicle is ready,” said Grantham.

This SpaceX Dragon will launch to the ISS sometime in 2012 on COTS2/3 mission. Protective fairings are installed over folded solar arrays, at the SpaceX Cape Canaveral launch site.

Dragon’s purpose is to ship food, water, provisions, equipment and science experiments to the ISS.

The demonstration flight – dubbed COTS 2/3 – will be the premiere test flight in NASA’s new strategy to resupply the ISS with privately developed rockets and cargo carriers under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) initiative.

The Dragon will blast off atop a Falcon 9 booster rocket also built by SpaceX and, if all goes well, conduct the first ever rendezvous and docking of a privately built spacecraft with the 1 million pound orbiting outpost.

After closely approaching the ISS, the crew will grapple Dragon with the station’s robotic arm and berth it to the Earth-facing port of the Harmony node.

“We’re very excited about it,” said ISS Commander Dan Burbank in a recent televised interview from space.

An astronaut operating the ISS robotic arm will grab Dragon and position it at a berthing port at the Harmony node. Illustration: NASA /SpaceX

Since the demonstration mission also involves many other first time milestones for the Dragon such as the first flight with integrated solar arrays and the first ISS rendezvous, extra special care and extensive preparatory activities are prudent and absolutely mandatory.

NASA’s international partners, including Russia, must be consulted and agree that all engineering and safety requirements, issues and questions related to the docking by new space vehicles such as Dragon have been fully addressed and answered.

William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate recently stated that the launch date depends on completing all the work necessary to ensure safety and success, “There is still a significant amount of critical work to be completed before launch, but the teams have a sound plan to complete it.”

“As with all launches, we will adjust the launch date as needed to gain sufficient understanding of test and analysis results to ensure safety and mission success.”

“A successful mission will open up a new era in commercial cargo delivery to the international orbiting laboratory,” said Gerstenmaier.

SpaceX is also working on a modified version of the spacecraft, dubbed DragonRider, that could launch astronaut crews to the ISS in perhaps 3 to 5 years depending on the amount of NASA funding available, says SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk

Read Ken’s recent features about the ISS and SpaceX/Dragon here:
Dazzling Photos of the International Space Station Crossing the Moon!
Solar Powered Dragon gets Wings for Station Soar
Absolutely Spectacular Photos of Comet Lovejoy from the Space Station
NASA announces Feb. 7 launch for 1st SpaceX Docking to ISS

Solar Powered Dragon gets Wings for Station Soar

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The Dragon has grown its mighty wings

SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft has gotten its wings and is set to soar to the International Space Station (ISS) in about a month. NASA and SpaceX are currently targeting a liftoff on Feb. 7 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Dragon is a commercially developed unmanned cargo vessel constructed by SpaceX under a $1.6 Billion contract with NASA. The Dragon spacecraft will launch atop a Falcon 9 booster rocket also built by SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies.

Dragon’s solar array panels being installed on Dragon’s trunk at the SpaceX hangar in Cape Canaveral,FL.

The Feb. 7 demonstration flight – dubbed COTS 2/3 – represents the first test of NASA’s new strategy to resupply the ISS with privately developed rockets and cargo carriers under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) initiative.

Following the forced retirement of the Space Shuttle after Atlantis final flight in July 2011, NASA has no choice but to rely on private companies to loft virtually all of the US share of supplies and equipment to the ISS.

The Feb. 7 flight will be the first Dragon mission actually tasked to dock to the ISS and is also the first time that the Dragon will fly with deployable solar arrays. The twin arrays are the primary power source for the Dragon. They will be deployed a few minutes after launch, following Dragon separation from the Falcon 9 second stage.

The solar arrays can generate up to 5000 watts of power on a long term basis to run the sensors and communications systems, drive the heating and cooling systems and recharge the battery pack.

SpaceX designed, developed and manufactured the solar arrays in house with their own team of engineers. As with all space hardware, the arrays have been rigorously tested for hundreds of hours under the utterly harsh conditions that simulate the unforgiving environment of outer space, including thermal, vacuum, vibration, structural and electrical testing.

SpaceX engineers conducting an early solar panel test. Hundreds of flood lamps simulate the unfiltered light of the sun. Photo: Roger Gilbertson/ SpaceX

The two arrays were then shipped to Florida and have been attached to the side of the Dragon’s bottom trunk at SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral launch processing facilities. They are housed behind protective shielding until commanded to deploy in flight.


Video Caption: SpaceX testing of the Dragon solar arrays. Credit: SpaceX

I’ve toured the SpaceX facilities several times and seen the Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule launching on Feb. 7. The young age and enthusiasm of the employees is impressive and quite evident.

NASA recently granted SpaceX the permission to combine the next two COTS demonstration flights into one mission and dock the Dragon at the ISS if all the rendezvous practice activities in the vicinity of the ISS are completed flawlessly.

Dragon with the protective fairings installed over the folded solar arrays, at the SpaceX

The ISS crew is eagerly anticipating the arrival of Dragon, for whch they have long trained.

“We’re very excited about it,” said ISS Commander Dan Burbank in a televised interview from on board the ISS earlier this week.

The ISS crew will grapple the Dragon with the station’s robotic arm when it comes within reach and berth it to the Earth-facing port of the Harmony node.

“From the standpoint of a pilot it is a fun, interesting, very dynamic activity and we are very much looking forward to it,” Burbank said. “It is the start of a new era, having commercial vehicles that come to Station.”

Burbank is a US astronaut and captured stunning images of Comet Lovejoy from the ISS just before Christmas, collected here.

Read recent features about the ISS and commercial spaceflight by Ken Kremer here:
Dazzling Photos of the International Space Station Crossing the Moon!
Absolutely Spectacular Photos of Comet Lovejoy from the Space Station
NASA announces Feb. 7 launch for 1st SpaceX Docking to ISS

Jan 11: Free Lecture by Ken at the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, PA at 8 PM for the Rittenhouse Astronomical Society. Topic: Mars & Vesta in 3 D – Plus Search for Life & GRAIL

NASA announces Feb. 7 launch for 1st SpaceX Docking to ISS

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Make or break time for NASA’s big bet on commercial space transportation is at last in view. NASA has announced Feb. 7, 2012 as the launch target date for the first attempt by SpaceX to dock the firms Dragon cargo resupply spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS), pending final safety reviews.

The Feb. 7 flight will be the second of the so-called Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration flights to be conducted by Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, under a contact with NASA.

Several months ago SpaceX had requested that the objectives of the next two COTS flights, known as COTS 2 and COTS 3, be merged into one very ambitious flight and allow the Dragon vehicle to actually dock at the ISS instead of only accomplishing a rendezvous test on the next flight and waiting until the third COTS flight to carry out the final docking attempt.

The Dragon will remain attached to the ISS for about one week and astronauts will unload the cargo. Then the spacecraft will depart, re-enter the Earth atmosphere splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.

“The cargo is hundreds of pounds of astronaut provisions,” SpaceX spokeswoman Kirstin Grantham told Universe Today.

SpaceX Dragon approaches the ISS
Astronauts can reach it with the robotic arm and berth it at the Earth facing port of the Harmony node. Illustration: NASA /SpaceX

“SpaceX has made incredible progress over the last several months preparing Dragon for its mission to the space station,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. “We look forward to a successful mission, which will open up a new era in commercial cargo delivery for this international orbiting laboratory.”

Since the forced retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle following the final fight with orbiter Atlantis in July 2011 on the STS-135 mission, the US has had absolutely zero capability to launch either supplies or human crews to the massive orbiting complex, which is composed primarily of US components.

In a NASA statement, Gerstenmaier added, “There is still a significant amount of critical work to be completed before launch, but the teams have a sound plan to complete it and are prepared for unexpected challenges. As with all launches, we will adjust the launch date as needed to gain sufficient understanding of test and analysis results to ensure safety and mission success.”

SpaceX lofted the COTS 1 flight a year ago on Dec. 8, 2010 and became the first private company to successfully launch and return a spacecraft from Earth orbit. SpaceX assembled both the Falcon 9 booster rocket and the Dragon cargo vessel from US built components.

An astronaut operating the robot arm aboard the ISS will move Dragon into position at the berthing port where it will be locked in place at the Harmony node. Illustration: NASA /SpaceX

The new demonstration flight is now dubbed COTS 2/3. The objectives include Dragon safely demonstrating all COTS 2 operations in the vicinity of the ISS by conducting check out procedures and a series of rendezvous operations at a distance of approximately two miles and the ability to abort if necessary.

The European ATV and Japanese HTV cargo vessels carried out a similar series of tests during their respective first flights.

After accomplishing all the rendezvous tasks, Dragon will then receive approval to begin the COTS 3 activities, gradually approaching the ISS from below to within a few meters.

Specially trained astronauts working in the Cupola will then reach out and grapple Dragon with the Station’s robotic arm and then maneuver it carefully into place onto the Earth-facing side of the Harmony node. The operations are expected to take several hours.

The COTS Demo 2/3 Dragon spacecraft at Cape Canaveral. Photo: SpaceX

If successful, the Feb. 7 SpaceX demonstration flight will become the first commercial mission to visit the ISS and vindicate the advocates of commercial space transportation who contend that allowing private companies to compete for contracts to provide cargo delivery services to the ISS will result in dramatically reduced costs and risks and increased efficiencies.

The new commercial paradigm would also thereby allow NASA to focus more of its scarce funds on research activities to come up with the next breakthroughs enabling bolder missions to deep space.

If the flight fails, then the future of the ISS could be in serious jeopardy in the medium to long term because there would not be sufficient alternative launch cargo capacity to maintain the research and living requirements for a full crew complement of six residents aboard the orbiting laboratory.

Feb. 7 represents nothing less than ‘High Stakes on the High Frontier’.

NASA is all about bold objectives in space exploration in both the manned and robotic arenas – and that’s perfectly represented by the agencies huge gamble with the commercial cargo and commercial crew initiatives.

SpaceX Unveils Launch of Falcon Heavy, Worlds Most Powerful Rocket by 2013

[/caption]Elon Musk, the CEO and chief rocket designer of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) announced today (April 5) that SpaceX will build and launch the world’s most powerful rocket – dubbed the Falcon Heavy – within two years.

Musk said that he expects SpaceX will launch the first Falcon Heavy by late 2012 or early 2013 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

“We are excited to announce the Falcon Heavy and only recently completed the design,” said Musk.

“Falcon Heavy will carry more payload to orbit or escape velocity than any vehicle in history, apart from the Saturn V moon rocket, which was decommissioned after the Apollo program. This opens a new world of capability for both government and commercial space missions.”

Musk unveiled the design plans for the privately developed, 227 foot tall heavy lift rocket at a briefing for reporters at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

“This is a rocket of truly huge scale.”

Falcon Heavy would lift from 100,000 to 120,000 pounds to orbit, about three times the performance of the Falcon 9. It is comprised of three nine- engine Falcon 9 first stage booster cores and would utilize upgraded Merlin 1D engines currently being tested at the SpaceX rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas. The Falcon booster cores would be the first to have cross feed propellant capability enabling significant enhancements in payload performance, Musk explained.

“We expect to launch a lot, maybe 20 launches per year,” said Musk. He thinks that the launches would be spilt about equally between the current Falcon 9 and the new Falcon Heavy allowing SpaceX to compete in the full gamut of opportunities for commercial rocket providers. The Falcon Heavy could even be used for interplanetary science missions to Mars and elsewhere in the Solar System (watch for follow up article).

With over 3.8 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, Falcon Heavy will be the most capable rocket flying. By comparison, the liftoff thrust of the Falcon Heavy equals fifteen Boeing 747 aircraft at full power. Credit: SpaceX

The Falcon Heavy would also be launched from Cape Canaveral after upgrading the existing Falcon 9 pad at the Cape. Indeed a majority of launches is expected from Florida vs. California.

SpaceX is in discussions with NASA to also possibly use one of the shuttle pads at Launch Complex 39 at the Kennedy Space Center. Both launch pads will be vacant after the shuttle stops flying later this year.

“First launch from our Cape Canaveral launch complex is planned for late 2013 or 2014,” Musk said.

The new heavy lift booster will have twice the performance capability of NASA’s retiring Space shuttle fleet or the Delta IV Heavy according to Musk.

“The Falcon Heavy will have more payload capability than any rocket since the Saturn V moon rocket.”

Musk said the Falcon Heavy will be dramatically cheaper and more cost effective compared to current rockets and set new world records in affordability and cost per pound. “The cost will be about $1000 per pound to orbit.” That price is a long sought and near mythical goal. It is also a critical selling point during these times of flat, very tight and declining budgets.

SpaceX says they are offering the Falcon 9 for some $50-60M and the Falcon Heavy for $80-$125M per launch. They say this compares to the projected Air Force average cost of $435M per launch for the 2012 budget year.

“The Falcon Heavy will be about one third the cost of the Delta IV Heavy and with twice the performance. That’s about 6 times more cost effective,” Musk stated. “That’s a pretty huge leap in capability.”

SpaceX will finance the cost of the first demonstration launch. The rocket will only loft several small payloads unless some organization is willing to take a gamble for a reduced cost. Without being specific, Musk added that SpaceX has had “strong interest from U.S. government agencies and commercial entities” for the second launch and beyond. “No one wants to be first.”

Comparison of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy offerd by SpaceX. Credit: SpaceX

Ensuring reliability is key to SpaceX future. Musk explained that the Falcon Heavy is also designed to meet NASA human rating standards, unlike other satellite launch vehicles. The rocket is designed to meet higher structural safety margins of 40% above flight loads, rather than the 25% level of other rockets, and triple redundant avionics.

To date, SpaceX has launched two Falcon 9 rockets. NASA has awarded SpaceX with a $1.6 billion contract to conduct a minimum of twelve Falcon 9 flights with the Dragon spacecraft to deliver at least 20,000 kg of cargo to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) after the Space Shuttle is retired.

Musk said that there is a lot to be learned and applied from using high volume production techniques used in the automotive industry while maintaining stringent quality control.

The date of the frist Falcon Heavy launch is expected to depend greatly on regulatory requirements, just like the maiden launch of the Falcon 9.

The Falcon Heavy is SpaceX’s entry into the heavy lift launch vehicle category. Capable of lifting over 32,000 kg to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), and over 19,500 kg to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO), the Falcon Heavy will compete with the largest commercial launchers now available. It consists of a standard Falcon 9 with two additional Falcon 9 first stages acting as liquid strap-on boosters. With the Falcon 9 first stage already designed to support the additional loads of this configuration and with common tanking and engines across both vehicles, development and operation of the Falcon Heavy will be highly cost-effective. Credit: SpaceX

Watch a SpaceX YouTube video about Falcon Heavy here:

The Future is Now: SpaceX Flight 100% Successful

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Hailed as a both a great day for commercial spaceflight as well as for NASA, SpaceX made history on Wednesday with a 100% successful test flight of its Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket. “This is a new way of doing business,” said Alan Lindenmoyer manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office, “and I would say today this is an indication that this public/private partnership is working and has proven to be successful. Thanks to SpaceX for the early Christmas present – this is a great way to start the holidays.”

At the press conference following the flight, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk at first appeared to be speechless: “Really, this has been better than I expected,” he said. “It all went right. I am sort of in semi shock—I wish I could be more articulate in moments like this, bit it’s hard to be articulate with a blown mind!”

But Musk soon found his words – and lots of them (with many great quotes, so keep reading…)

SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: Alan Walters (awaltersphoto.com) for Universe Today.

Lindenmoyer said SpaceX’s accomplishments are quite an achievement, since over the last 20 years, for new launch vehicles only about 50% of them are success are successful on their first or second flights, and only 1 out of 3 new vehicles have two successful flights in a row, which SpaceX has achieved.

Musk said the success really shouldn’t be a surprise since the Dragon spacecraft has so many redundancies: 18 thruster engines instead of 9, 3 parachutes when they really could land with one, extra thermal protection, and a very advanced heat shield. But in the end, SpaceX didn’t need to use any of the backup systems.

Preliminary data said the Dragon reentered the atmosphere spot on at a 12% angle of attack, with 2% dispersion. “This is a testament to the incredible work of the people at SpaceX,” he said. “Everyone did their jobs so well.”

Musk also emphasize that his company couldn’t have gotten to where they are without NASA, in not only monetary support ($278 million for the COTS program), but in leading the way in spaceflight.

“The core concepts of Falcon 9 and Dragon were demonstrated decades ago by NASA, and its an old saying, but we are only here because we stand on the shoulders of giants. So thank you,” he said.

Musk noted a few key things about the flight: The restart of Falcon 9’s second stage went perfectly; the second stage as restarted after the release of Dragon, and rose to an altitude of more than 11,000 km (6,800 miles), Musk said. Secondary satellite payloads of nanosatellites were released during the flight. And, Musk added, that altitude was with the trimmed, repaired nozzle. Reaching an altitude that high was not part of SpaceX’s primary objectives, but nice to have, Musk said.

Dragon went to an altitude of 300 km.

Musk also stressed that the difference between this Dragon capsule and one that could carry people isn’t that different.

“People sometimes think the different between cargo and crew required enormous amount of magical pixie dust,” he said “This is not the case. If there would have been people sitting in Dragon today, they would have had a nice ride, feeling about 4-5 G’s, which is about what an amusement park ride is like,” with an 8 meter per second descent speed which is quite comfortable from a landing perspective.

Image of Dragon capsule recovery efforts. Credit: SpaceX

The only differences, Musk said, would be the addition of a launch escape system. And, he revealed, what SpaceX really hopes to do with future spacecraft is not a splashdown in the ocean but a propulsive landing on the ground.

“The architecture you saw today was similar to what was employed in Apollo era, but we are aiming for propulsive landing with gear, kind of like the Eagle landing on the moon, and being able to take off again” he said. “Full reusability of Dragon and Falcon 9 is important as well, and something we want to figure out over time.”

Musk also said this mission didn’t have many significant differences in one that would send the Dragon the ISS. “In our discussions with NASA they said if this flight went well they would strongly consider letting us go to the space station on next mission,” he said. “I hope that is what NASA will allow us to do, we need to still examine the data from this mission first, but I’m highly optimistic. There are additional elements to be added to Dragon such as solar panels and redundancy on flight computers and electronics, but feel highly confident we could make it to the ISS on our next flight by middle of next year.”

Today’s flight tested the fundamentals of a heat shield and precision landing. Musk said the performance of heat shield was spectacular, and projected that is could not only handle Earth reentry, but also lunar and Mars reentry.

SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell noted some other technical details, of how Dragon was able to maintain attitude and thermal control, as well as maintain communications with ground stations and TEDRIS satellites, which requires specific directional pointing.

The entire launch and two orbit flight took 3 hours 19 min 52 seconds, and initial data said they landed within 10 km of their target, and a communiqué from the Air force said Dragon came within 800 meters.

Asked about the flame flare that came about 2 seconds after launch, Musk said the first look by engineers said it was a check valve on the second stage umbilical that came off and caught fire as the spacecraft engines passed by — not an explosion but a just little fire.

Musk said the point in the flight where he felt the most jubilation and great relief was when the parachutes deployed. “Drogue and main chute deploy were riskiest parts, so when that happened, it was done deal. Just mind-blowingly awesome.”

Asked if the success today would silence any of SpaceX’s critics, Musk said, “I think if there really are people who are going still find a way to cast aversions on what we’ve done today, I pity them. It just wouldn’t make any sense.”

He said politicians who initially wanted to cut commercial crew funds from NASA’s budget soon learned that such a move would not decrease but increase the deficit and also meant increased time with no American access to space. “I think some politicians were initially mislead, but then they realized the value of commercial crew, which is why it the cuts didn’t make it into the final report.”

Asked about the differences in Dragon and NASA’s Orion spacecraft, Musk said that Space X would probably be the most rapid path to an American crew transport system. “If we would have had people on this flight we would have taken them to orbit and returned them safely,” he said. “Going to a crew system is just adding some additional safety systems for highly off nominal activities. Even for cargo missions we will be carrying plants and animals so I think we are in a very strong position to be one of the winners of the commercial crew contract.”

Musk added that competition is good, however, and NASA shouldn’t be too dependent on one company,” so hopefully there will be two or maybe three commercial crew providers and hopefully we are one of them.”
Musk agreed with Lindenmoyer on how this appears to vindicate the public/private model of space flight and shows that the commercial model works just as well in space flight as in air flight, or other arenas.

“The air mail program was a huge boost when the Post Office went commercial,” he said “and that resulted in explosion of innovation and improvement in technology. It really was the dawn of aviation in American where it went from joy rides that rich people could do, to today where aviation is accessible to almost everyone. I think historically COTS program will be seen in that light.”

On board Dragon was a few small satellites, and look for Musk to reveal tomorrow the nature of a humorous item that was on board. “I’m not going to reveal it today, as I don’t want some of the editors to use it in the first headlines,” he said. “It is kind of funny and if you like Monty Python you’ll like this one.”

Spam in a can?

Universe Today extends their congratulations to SpaceX. The future appears to be now.