Next for SpaceX: Falcon 9, NASA, Humans and the Moon?


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Next for SpaceX: Falcon 9, NASA, Humans and the Moon?

Wired said:

With a successful Falcon 1 launch under their belt, all eyes are now on the SpaceX team and the larger Falcon 9 rocket scheduled to be shipped to Cape Canaveral, Florida, late this year to prep for its NASA cargo flights.

Falcon 9 has nine Merlin rocket engines to Falcon 1's one, hence the 9 and the 1 in their names, and is capable of taking cargo, and eventually crew, to and from the International Space Station. The maiden voyage of the Falcon 9 is scheduled for the first quarter of 2009 from the larger launch pad SpaceX is currently refurbishing at the Cape. (Map of SpaceX's Kwajalein and Cape launch sites are shown below.)

After Falcon 9's first flight there are three commercial payloads and two NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation System, or COTS, demonstration flights scheduled for 2009. The first COTS flight will simply fly cargo to orbit, do some maneuvering and then come home. The second cargo mission will demonstrate its ability to safely and accurately maneuver and execute close-proximity operations using the Falcon 9's spent upper stage as a proxy for the International Space Station. The third COTS demonstration flight, currently scheduled for 2010, will fly a full cargo delivery profile, including docking to the International Space Station.

If SpaceX meets all of these milestones they will receive their full $278 million COTS award. To put that in perspective NASA awarded a $3.9 billion cost-plus contract to Lockheed Martin to develop the pressurized Orion capsule that will carry the crew atop the Ares I rocket. NASA has already modified the contract to Lockheed to add in two additional abort tests and to push back the program two years. The modification alone cost them an additional $385 million, more than NASA will pay SpaceX for the Falcon 9 rocket and pressurized Dragon capsule should the flights prove successful. Quite a bargain.

There is also the potential for NASA to agree to pay $308 million more for SpaceX to demonstrate the launch of crew to and from the International Space Station. Previously the company had said that if the money was approved this summer, they could fly the first crews to the Space Station in 2012. This would be quite a deal given the frustration many are feeling about the gap in U.S. access to space after the Shuttle retires in 2010. Still without a successful orbital flight, SpaceX had only paper to back up its claims. Now with a Falcon 1 rocket able to deliver its payload to the "middle of the bull's-eye" on orbit, the option to pay for crew transport in addition to cargo may well be back open for discussion. A successful Falcon 9 flight early next year would certainly make it an even more compelling option.

The Dragon capsule is designed to transport up to seven people to low Earth orbit and remain docked to the Space Station for up to six months. Earlier this month, SpaceX also announced "DragonLab," a version of the Dragon capsule that they will make available to researchers and other payloads as a free-flying space platform capable of staying in space from one week to two years.

For those who are looking for a low-cost way to get beyond low Earth orbit, SpaceX will be rolling out the Falcon 1e, a special version of the Falcon 1 they are building with the $20-million Google Lunar X Prize in mind. The $7.9 million Falcon 1 can launch 420 kg to low Earth orbit which is not enough to get a spacecraft to the moon. The Falcon 1e, however, will be able to lift 1010 kg and will still only cost $9.1 million (a Falcon 9 lunar launch would cost $46.75 million — more than the prize itself). SpaceX expects to roll out the Falcon 1e by 2010, well before the prize expires on December 31, 2012.

SpaceX is a preferred provider of launch services to Google Lunar X Prize teams and has agreed to offer its launch vehicles at cost to all the competitors. SpaceX does not have any lunar flights currently listed on their online flight manifest. But who knows? Maybe they will get to play a historic role in the first private explorations of the moon as well.

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Photo: SpaceX

Full disclosure: I also consult for one of the Google Lunar X Prize teams.


(Via Wired)