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SpaceX on the launchpad of a new era in space transport

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Mar 5, 2012, 8:00 UTC

On May 22 SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launched its Dragon spacecraft into orbit successfully. Dragon should become the first privately operated spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station in the next few days.

More than 50 years after the space age began, the final frontier is at last opening wide to private enterprise. And at the forefront of these new commercial operations is SpaceX, a company so ambitious that it is setting its sights as far as Mars.

Having successfully built and launched their own rocket designs into space, Space Exploration Technologies Corp, to give them their full name, have won NASA funding  & contracts to develop and service future US transport to orbit.

If all continues to go well, other Dragons will later roar into space as America's regular shuttle replacement, carrying astronauts and supplies to the orbiting outpost.

It is all part of a mission for the company to become America's premier space services operation and so realise the dream of its founder, Chief Executive Officer and Chief Technology Officer, Elon Musk, previously the co-founder and force behind Internet giant PayPal.

Musk's goal with SpaceX, which he set up in 2002, is to provide a reliable and cost-efficient fleet to make humans a space-faring civilisation.

Key to affordability is to make his space fleet reusable, cutting out much of the waste that has accompanied space operations before now.

The company, based near Los Angeles at Hawthorne, California, and already employing more than 1600 people, is developing a family of three rocket launchers, called Falcons.

Falcon 1 was the smallest and is designed to carry small satellites to Low Earth Orbit (LOE) - the same sort of heights at which the ISS flies - powered by a single SpaceX Merlin 1C engine which is based on the same designs that launched Apollo to the Moon.

The twin-stage Falcon 1 first successfully reached orbit with its fourth flight in September 2008. All flights have been made from Kwajalein Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. A fifth launch in July 2009 placed a Malaysian satellite in orbit.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on the launchpad February 2012Left: Falcon 9 on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, Februrary 2012, ready for its test flight to the ISS.

Falcon 9 is a more powerful two-stage rocket, fitted with nine SpaceX Merlin engines, that can again reach Low Earth Orbit but can also carry smaller payloads to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) - a zone from which payloads such as communications satellites may be sent to their permanent, remote positions locked above a fixed point on the Earth, or even as far as the Moon.

After a successful debut launch in June 2010, the next Falcon 9 flew in December the same year carrying a Dragon which made two orbits before splashing down as planned in the Pacific.

SpaceX Falcon 9 flight 2

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off for its second flight. Credit: SpaceX/Chris Thompson

It carried a secret cargo of cheese in tribute to Monty Python's famous Cheese Shop sketch! Flights are currently made from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California or Cape Canaveral, Florida, with a price list at $54 million to $59.5 million according to SpaceX. SpaceX is actively looking for other sites.

Giant of the fleet will be the mighty Falcon Heavy. Three rocket cores will form its first stage, using 27 Merlin engines to generate an astonishing 3.8 million pounds of thrust - equivalent to 15 jumbo jets at full power - allowing it to lift almost twice the size of payload to orbit as the Space Shuttle could manage. Only NASA's Saturn V Apollo launcher generated more thrust. SpaceX are offering the Falcon Heavy's services for $80 million to $125 million a launch with the US Department of Defense seen as an important customer. It will also be a vital workhorse for the future missions.

The success of the early flights led to a $1.6 billion contract from NASA under the agency's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to turn the delivery of astronaut crews and cargoes over to private enterprise. The contract is to send 12 missions to the ISS.

An important next step will be the sending of a Dragon to the space station. This was due to happen in February 2012, but was delayed until late April at the earliest by the company to allow more advance engineering work to be completed to help ensure success. If all goes well, manned flights are scheduled to come by late 2014.

SpaceX Dragon spacecraft approaches the ISS

Dragon approaching International Space Station. Credit: NASA

The Dragon takes a more conventional approach to spacecraft design than, say, Reaction Engines' Skylon concept which is being developed in the UK. Its capsule, which has been dubbed DragonLab for non-ISS missions, will be able to carry up to seven astronauts or a mix of crew and cargo. Unlike similar spacecraft, it will fly with "wings" - not of the aircraft type, of course, but solar panels that will provide most of its power. Early missions will continue to splash down in the ocean on return to Earth. But future missions will be able to land under their own propulsion on dry land. 

Earlier this year, SpaceX successfully test-fired a vital component of this, a new engine called SuperDraco. Eight of the SuperDraco engines will be built into the sidewalls of the Dragon spacecraft to give it exceptional manoeuverability. That will allow it to escape danger as well as land itself - back on Earth and eventually even on Mars.

Incredibly, the company is working on critical developments so that not only the Dragon capsule but the individual rocket stages can return to Earth and make their own powered, vertical landings at spaceports.

SpaceX says that reusability is key to the dramatic cost savings that will enable advancements in human exploration of space. The company is also said to be working with Microsoft tycoon Paul Allen on adapting Falcon 9 to fly from his Stratolaunch project which Sen has previously covered.

SpaceX Falcon 9 separation stage. artist's impression

Dragon and Falcon 9 Second Stage, post Second Stage Separation Event. Courtesy NASA

Dragon and Falcon 9 Second Stage, post Second Stage Separation Event. Credit NASA

Still more ambitious is Musk's goal to reach Mars within 20 years - ten if he can. He firmly believes that it will be as natural a step for life to become multi-planetary as it was for it to evolve from single-celled creatures, move out of the sea and develop consciousness.

Musk says he wants to put 10,000 people on Mars, perhaps many more, and believes that will become a business proposition if the cost of a ticket can be brought down to the price of a decent house in California. Musk believes he will need $2 billion to $5 billion to reach the Red Planet which he sees as readily achievable.

Explaining his passion for space, Musk said that, as well as being an evolutionary move, it was also important from the standpoint of life insurance, in case a natural event such as an asteroid impact or some human action destroyed civilisation on Earth.

But he added: "I think it’s also one of the most inspiring and interesting things that we could try to do. It’s one of the greatest adventures that humanity could ever embark upon. And life has to be more than about solving problems. If all that life is about is solving problems, why bother getting up in the morning? There have to be things that inspire you, that make you proud to be a member of humanity."