NSS Executive Director Addresses Media at Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference

National Space Society Executive Director Paul E. Damphousse addresses the media at the 3rd annual Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference (NSRC) today in Palo Alto, CA.

“The NSRC has quickly become the premier event for the advancement of research activity within the burgeoning suborbital community,” Damphousse said. “We at NSS feel this compelling new sector, while opening up new research opportunities, will have an even greater impact on advancing low-cost access to space through routine and repeatable missions. These missions will advance the technologies and techniques needed in our ultimate quest to become a spacefaring civilization – NSS is proud to support these efforts.”

About NSRC: A new generation of space vehicles capable of economically delivering payloads and researchers is coming on line in 2012 and 2013. These vehicles will revolutionize space access by providing frequent, low-cost access to space, and the capability to carry research and education crew members, thereby simplifying and further reducing the cost of experimentation in space. They will also carry automated experiments for technology and TRL (Technology Readiness Level) demonstrations, and for atmospheric science, solar physics, microgravity science, planetary science, space life science, space physics, and education and public outreach (EPO).

NSRC-2012 brings together researchers from government, industry, and academia and provides a forum for researchers, educators, and other users to learn about the research and EPO capabilities of these new systems, their experiments, and EPO integration processes. NSRC-2012 will also provide the user community for these vehicles a key opportunity to make inputs on vehicle design and operational requirements. For more information go to nsrc.swri.org.

SpaceX Slips Dragon Mission to ISS

SpaceX announced that it will slip the launch of the Dragon spacecraft aboard a Falcon 9 from the original 7 February 2012 date. The specific reason for the delay was not specified, but was related to a “sense of responsibility in returning US crewed access to LEO”.

NASASpaceFlight notes that SpaceX was slipping in order to allow for due diligence “safety checks” ahead of launch.

The Dragon mission is part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. SpaceX plans to accomplish the milestones originally assigned to both flight two and three. The first flight occurred in December 2010.

It is expected that the slip will only be two to three weeks.

NSS Hails Stratolaunch Initiative – A Pioneering Investment in Space

The National Space Society (NSS) hails the announcement of Stratolaunch Systems, a Paul G. Allen Project, as a pioneering investment in space transportation. The company has been formed to build a mobile air-launch-to-orbit system that will include three primary components:

• A carrier aircraft, developed by Scaled Composites, the aircraft manufacturer and assembler founded by Burt Rutan. It will be the largest aircraft ever flown.
• A multi-stage booster, manufactured by Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies;
• A state-of-the-art mating and integration system allowing the carrier aircraft to safely carry a booster weighing up to 490,000 pounds. It will be built by Dynetics, a leader in the field of aerospace engineering.

“The Stratolaunch Initiative is another bold step towards the key goal of reducing the cost of space travel” said Gary Barnhard, Executive Director of the National Space Society. “By providing a less costly, more flexible, and timely launch capability than existing ground-based systems, the Stratolaunch team intends to achieve routine airport-like space transportation services to orbital destinations. NSS wishes clear skies ahead for their efforts,” he concluded.

With an envisioned payload capability of 13,500 pounds cargo and/or crewed spacecraft delivered to Low Earth Orbit, a fully reusable first stage air-launch carrier, and the potential for evolution to a winged returnable second stage, the initiative holds great promise. More background information on the Stratolaunch concept can be found in their presskit.

In their announcement yesterday, Stratolaunch said, “… space has long been on Allen’s mind. In the close of his memoir, Idea Man, published earlier this year, he hinted at his plans, writing that he was ‘considering a new initiative with that magical contraption I never wearied of sketching as a boy: the rocket ship.” NSS thanks Paul for endeavoring to bring his boyhood dreams into reality in this historic way.

Since 1974, NSS has been working to bring forward the day when humans will be living and working in thriving communities beyond the Earth, and the vast resources of space are brought to bear for the dramatic betterment of humanity. Commercial space initiatives are bringing that day ever closer.

Stratolaunch Systems: New Space Launch System Announced by Paul Allen

SEATTLE, WA, Dec 13, 2011 – Entrepreneur and philanthropist Paul G. Allen announced today that he and aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan have reunited to develop the next generation of space travel. Allen and Rutan, whose SpaceShipOne was the first privately-funded, manned rocket ship to fly beyond earth’s atmosphere, are developing a revolutionary approach to space transportation: an air-launch system to provide orbital access to space with greater safety, cost-effectiveness and flexibility.

The space flight revolution Allen and Rutan pioneered in 2004 with SpaceShipOne now enters a new era. Only months after the last shuttle flight closed an important chapter in spaceflight, Allen is stepping in with an ambitious effort to continue America’s drive for space.

“I have long dreamed about taking the next big step in private space flight after the success of SpaceShipOne – to offer a flexible, orbital space delivery system,” Allen said. “We are at the dawn of radical change in the space launch industry. Stratolaunch Systems is pioneering an innovative solution that will revolutionize space travel.”

Allen’s new company, Stratolaunch Systems, will build a mobile launch system with three primary components:

  • A carrier aircraft, developed by Scaled Composites, the aircraft manufacturer and assembler founded by Rutan. It will be the largest aircraft ever flown.
  • A multi-stage booster, manufactured by Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies;
  • A state-of-the-art mating and integration system allowing the carrier aircraft to safely carry a booster weighing up to 490,000 pounds. It will be built by Dynetics, a leader in the field of aerospace engineering.

Stratolaunch Systems will bring airport-like operations to the launch of commercial and government payloads and, eventually, human missions. Plans call for a first flight within five years. The air-launch-to-orbit system will mean lower costs, greater safety, and more flexibility and responsiveness than is possible today with ground-based systems. Stratolaunch’s quick turnaround between launches will enable new orbital missions as well as break the logjam of missions queued up for launch facilities and a chance at space. Rutan, who has joined Stratolaunch Systems as a board member, said he was thrilled to be back working with Allen. “Paul and I pioneered private space travel with SpaceShipOne, which led to Virgin Galactic’s commercial suborbital SpaceShipTwo Program. Now, we will have the opportunity to extend that capability to orbit and beyond. Paul has proven himself a visionary with the will, commitment and courage to continue pushing the boundaries of space technology. We are well aware of the challenges ahead, but we have put together an incredible research team that will draw inspiration from Paul’s vision.”

To lead the Stratolaunch Systems team, Allen picked a veteran NASA official with years of experience in engineering, management and human spaceflight. Stratolaunch Systems CEO and President Gary Wentz, a former chief engineer at NASA, said the system’s design will revolutionize space travel.

Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, also a Stratolaunch board member, joined Allen and Rutan at a press conference in Seattle to announce the project. “We believe this technology has the potential to someday make spaceflight routine by removing many of the constraints associated with ground launched rockets,” Griffin said. “Our system will also provide the flexibility to launch from a large variety of locations.”

The Stratolaunch system will eventually have the capability of launching people into low earth orbit. But the company is taking a building block approach in development of the launch aircraft and booster, with initial efforts focused on unmanned payloads. Human flights will follow, after safety, reliability and operability are demonstrated.

The carrier aircraft will operate from a large airport/spaceport, such as Kennedy Space Center, and will be able to fly up to 1,300 nautical miles to the payload’s launch point.

It will use six 747 engines, have a gross weight of more than 1.2 million pounds and a wingspan of more than 380 feet. For takeoff and landing, it will require a runway 12,000 feet long. Systems onboard the launch aircraft will conduct the countdown and firing of the booster and will monitor the health of the orbital payload.

The plane will be built in a Stratolaunch hangar which will soon be under construction at the Mojave Air and Space Port. It will be near where Scaled Composites built SpaceShipOne which won Allen and Scaled Composites the $10-million Ansari X Prize in 2004 after three successful sub-orbital flights. Scaled Composites is a wholly owned subsidiary of Northrop Grumman.

“Scaled is all about achieving milestones and pursuing breakthroughs, and this project offers both – building the largest airplane in the world, and achieving the manufacturing breakthroughs that will enable Scaled to accomplish it. We are thrilled to be a part of this development program,” said Scaled Composites President Doug Shane. “We anticipate significant hiring of engineering, manufacturing, and support staff in the near and medium term.”

The multi-stage booster will be manufactured by California-based Space Exploration Technologies, one of the world’s pre-eminent space transportation companies. “Paul Allen and Burt Rutan helped generate enormous interest in space with White Knight and SpaceShipOne,” said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell. “There was no way we weren’t going to be involved in their next great endeavor. We are very excited.”

Dynetics will provide the mating and integration system and the systems engineering, integration, test and operations support for the entire air-launch system. The mating and integration system will be manufactured in Huntsville, Alabama in Dynetics’ new 226,500 square foot prototyping facility. Dynetics has been a leader in aerospace engineering since 1974. “We are excited to play such a major role on this system. This is an ambitious project unlike any that has been undertaken and I am confident the Stratolaunch team has the experience and capabilities to accomplish the mission,” said Dynetics Executive Vice President and Stratolaunch Board Member David King.

Stratolaunch Systems’ corporate headquarters is located in Huntsville, Alabama. Today’s announcement was the first public word that Allen and Rutan were back in the space business. But space has long been on Allen’s mind. In the close of his memoir, Idea Man, published earlier this year, he hinted at his plans, writing that he was “considering a new initiative with that magical contraption I never wearied of sketching as a boy: the rocket ship.”

The SpaceX Falcon Heavy Booster: Why Is It Important?

by John K. Strickland, Jr.

The announcement of the Falcon Heavy in early April, 2011 was a potential game-changer in the space launch industry. The Falcon Heavy is slated to launch twice the payload of the Shuttle at about one-fifteenth the cost of a Shuttle launch — an approximate 95% reduction in launch costs compared with the Shuttle!

“How can Musk do that?”

Many months after the Falcon Heavy announcement there is still confusion about its significance, and in some quarters outright disbelief remains regarding the launch prices actually posted on the SpaceX website for the Falcon Heavy. No other company has posted fixed launch prices on the Internet — only SpaceX. The actual taxpayer cost of US government launches can only be guessed by calculating from the cost-plus contract costs, which are usually for multiple launches from the same customer. If SpaceX does multiple launches, the posted price would be reduced depending on the number of launches. Almost any commodity’s price decreases if production rates increase. Rockets are no different.

What amazes people is that SpaceX has broken the long-sought 1,000 dollars a pound to orbit price barrier with a rocket which is still expendable. “How can he (SpaceX CEO Elon Musk) possibly do this?” they ask. The Chinese have said flatly that there is no way they can compete with such a low price. It is important to remember that this was not done in a single step. The Falcon 9 already has a large price advantage over other boosters, even though it does not have the payload capacity of some of the largest ones. The “Heavy” will even this score and then some. At last count, SpaceX had a launch manifest of over 40 payloads, far exceeding any current government contracts, with more being added every month. These are divided between the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy.

The Falcon Heavy is similar in conformation to the Delta 4 Heavy, which is the only rocket currently in service that is fair to compare to the Falcon Heavy. The “Heavy” will consist of three Falcon 9 stages strapped together (two side stages and a core stage which has a small upper stage and payload with fairing). The Falcon stages are stretched and the nine Merlin engines on each will be upgraded to have more thrust than the current engines. With a total liftoff mass of 1400 metric tons, it will put 53 metric tons into a standard 200 km Earth orbit at 28 degrees. (The 200 km orbit is a standard orbit to start from, for example, for injection into a geosynchronous transfer orbit — payloads are not left in this 200 km orbit.) Each of the “Heavy’s” three stages are about 12 feet in diameter, so based on data from the Ares I, the payload fairing could be up to 18 feet in diameter. The currently proposed shroud diameter is 17 feet. The total thrust at liftoff will be 3.8 million pounds or about 1700 tons, or 50% of the Saturn V’s thrust. This will make it the world’s largest and most powerful operational rocket once it has flown. The first flight is anticipated in 2013 from Vandenburg Air Force Base in California.

A 10-fold reduction in cost per pound to orbit

To fairly compare the two rocket performances, you really have to look at the numbers. Although the Falcon Heavy looks similar to a Delta 4 Heavy, its performance is much higher and, simultaneously, its cost per launch is much lower. It can put 53 metric tons (117,000 lbs) in orbit compared to the Delta 4 Heavy’s 23 metric tons (or 50,600 lbs), a 230% improvement. At the same time, it only costs about $100 million per launch, while the Delta 4 Heavy launches cost $435 million each (calculated from an Air Force contract of $1.74 billion for 4 launches).

Comparing the payload costs to orbit is useful here. The Delta 4 Heavy can put up 23 metric tons at about $19 million/ton or $8600 per pound). If it could put up 53 metric tons at the same price per ton, then that payload launch would cost almost exactly 1 billion dollars. Since the Falcon Heavy’s posted price per launch centers on 100 million dollars (and the corresponding payload price is about $850 per pound or $1.9 million per ton), it is easy to see that the future (< 2 years) price of a commercial Falcon Heavy launch per unit weight is almost exactly one-tenth of the current Delta 4 Heavy price.

A different calculation method yields the same result. If we use the same average posted price value of $100 million, the Falcon Heavy actually can be launched for about one-fourth the cost of a Delta IV Heavy (4.35 times cheaper per launch), yet it carries 2.31 times as much payload! This means the current cost per pound to LEO for the Delta IV Heavy is 4.35 times 2.31 = 10.05 or almost exactly 10 times more expensive (by multiplying the two ratios together).

How SpaceX does it

When people see this cost comparison, they ask all over again “How can he (Musk) do that?” How can the Falcon outperform the Delta by such a wide margin? The three main reasons seem to be (1) low manufacturing cost (2) low operational cost (time efficient operations design and low man-hours needed per launch) and (3) high efficiency performance in flight. The first two have already been demonstrated by the Falcon 9, and they continue to be improved, such as a recently announced two-thirds reduction of fuel loading time. The SpaceX paradigm is one of continuous improvement.

The first reason (low manufacturing cost) is exercised again in the “Heavy” by using three nearly identical rocket stages (instead of two solids and a core stage), which means more production of the same units, thus reducing their unit cost. The SpaceX plant in Hawthorne, California, is building towards the capability of producing a Falcon 9 first stage or Falcon Heavy side booster every week and an upper stage every two weeks. Within five years, SpaceX expects to be producing more large rocket engines per year (several hundred) than all other rocket companies on the planet combined. Engine production costs will thus decline still more. (Dragon production, depending on demand, is planned for a rate of one every six to eight weeks.)

The third reason (high efficiency in flight) is partly achieved by the standard methods of making the engines fuel efficient, with high thrust and low mass, and making the overall structural mass of each stage as low as possible. Musk has apparently done this better than anyone else. For example, the two side boosters have a fully fueled to empty mass ratio of 30. Additional flight efficiency is achieved by propellant cross-feeding (see below).

The Falcon rockets also use a short upper stage which consists of a single Merlin engine to place the payload into orbit. Musk has been talking about creating a hydrogen-oxygen upper stage, which could boost the total Falcon Heavy payload close to the minimum for a “true” heavy lift vehicle, or about 70 tons. This engine could enter service before 2015.

Propellant cross-feeding

Part of the Falcon Heavy flight efficiency is achieved by a method that has been known for decades, but no one else has been willing to attempt to implement it. This method is called propellant cross-feeding. All three Falcon boosters use full thrust at takeoff to lift the massive rocket. During flight, the outer two stages pump part of their propellant into the center stage. They thus run out of propellant faster than you would expect, but the result is that the center (core) stage has almost a full load of propellant at separation where it is already at altitude and at speed. Unfortunately, very little information has been released on the cross-feeding system to be used by the Falcon Heavy. It would only be used for payloads exceeding 50 metric tons.

The cross-feeding scheme used by Space X apparently does not pump fuel into the tanks of the core stage. Instead, the three core-stage engines next to each side booster are fed directly from the side booster’s tanks. This is very similar to how the shuttle’s external tank feeds the shuttle main engines (SMEs). In the case of the Falcon Heavy, of course, the two side booster’s tanks are feeding propellant to 12 engines instead of 9, so they run out of propellant faster. At some point after liftoff, of course, you do not need the full thrust of all 27 engines to maintain acceleration, as much of the mass (propellant) has already been used. The core stage engines will then apparently be throttled down while the side stages continue to burn at full thrust. Presumably, only the center three engines in the core stage are using propellant from the core stages tanks. Thus, when the side stages separate, most of the core stage’s propellant is still there, and then all the core stage engines can burn at full thrust. Assuming that the core stage is going several thousand miles an hour at separation and is perhaps 30 miles high or more, it is as if an entire stretched Falcon 9 rocket starts its liftoff at separation. Separation of fuel lines like this occurred every time the external tank separated from the space shuttle and when the old original Atlas shed its two side booster engines.

What can we do with it?

The Falcon Heavy, when it enters service, creates a new payload weight class. This capability can be exploited in multiple ways for existing payloads, such as launching more than one communications satellite in a single payload. The large payload fairing gives payload designers a lot of room for their payloads, which do not need to be as compact, and can thus be wider and more than twice as heavy as a shuttle payload.

The Falcon Heavy also opens up a window to much larger, heavier payloads. Much concern was expressed after the last shuttle launch about the loss of the shuttle’s lift capacity. The Falcon Heavy will be able to place more than two shuttle payloads in orbit in one launch at about 1/15 of the price of a single shuttle launch. The only thing missing is the ability to move items placed in orbit to a specific place where you want them, such as the space station. The Dragon capsule (and the other smaller delivery vehicles) will cover that for smaller supplies. For larger items such as new habitats or instruments, just two large payloads, a Low Earth Orbit space tug and a propellant depot, would solve the problem. This would allow much larger space station modules to be launched and thus allow new additions to the station. The Large Centrifuge Facility is the most critical item that was deleted during the multi-decades of budget-cutting that affected the station. It is still a vitally needed module to allow studies of mammals in low gravity fields to prove that we can colonize Mars. Also, additional crew habitat and laboratory modules were originally planned and then cancelled.

The only shuttle capability that the Falcon Heavy (and its payloads) would not provide is the ability to return large objects from orbit, but this has been rarely required. Considering that the cost of shuttle launches has recently been pegged at $1.5 billion apiece, (about $75 million per ton of payload), in most cases it would be far cheaper to build a new payload than to bring it back in a shuttle.

There are many other large payloads that a Falcon Heavy could launch that do not involve the space station. With a 53 to 70 ton payload, a very large optical space telescope could be orbited to replace Hubble. Discussions are also underway for a potentially low-price-shattering Mars mission which would use a Dragon capsule to land deep drilling and other robotic equipment. The mission would presumably use a higher energy (hydrogen/oxygen) engine along with an enlarged upper stage to boost the Dragon to escape velocity toward Mars with the robotic drilling equipment inside. Since the Dragon plus its payload would be over 10 times heavier than any previously landed payload, it would have to use newer methods of decelerating in the atmosphere before landing on Mars. A modified Dragon capsule could also potentially be the basis of a much cheaper Mars sample return mission.

Fifty tons to orbit has been an assumed minimum unit mass for practical construction of space solar power. Even with the Falcon Heavy to launch the equipment, space solar cannot yet compete with coal or nuclear power, but even now, it could compete with ground solar or wind power, especially if intended for base load supply. Five Falcon Heavy launches could place 250 tons of solar panels in Earth orbit. An additional launch could orbit a solar powered ion or plasma tug, which could move the equipment to Geosynchronous Earth Orbit, avoiding the huge penalty of using liquid fuel to reach the higher orbit. Alternately, a single “Heavy” launch could place a single prototype 50-ton powersat in orbit to be used as an emergency power supply. This could be enough to supply about 10 megawatts to disaster sites over an entire continent via laser beam.

For human missions beyond LEO, the Falcon Heavy could launch a long duration Dragon capsule (about 10 metric tons) attached to a 42 ton crew habitat, or an Orion (21 metric tons) attached to a 32 ton habitat (these numbers do not include propellant to reach escape trajectory, which could be obtained from a propellant depot). Either configuration would be suitable for an asteroid mission.

Economic impact

Decades ago, the US lost most of the world’s market share of commercial satellite launches to Europe and Russia, along with a large number of jobs. The existing large US companies launch almost exclusively for the US government. This situation is now starting to change, with the realization that much lower launch costs are possible with high reliability. Both the commercial communications satellite makers and the government are now taking a close look at the upstart company, realizing that soon they will be able to launch 10 tons for the price of one. This will affect the US balance of payments, the US job market, and the level of confidence in our own ability to build commercial rocket launchers. It may encourage the existing large rocket companies to innovate and reduce launch costs for their own vehicles. The new entrepreneurial jobs may soak up some the laid-off NASA personnel and contractors. Needing fewer personnel to build and launch rockets will open job opportunities in spacecraft construction and other areas. A reduction of expenditures for space transportation to orbit will eventually allow more expenditures on space transportation in and beyond orbit.

What’s next

Elon Musk has indicated that he is not interested in building re-usable winged vehicles, but that he is interested in recovering his boosters for re-use, which he admits is a really tough challenge. The primary current problem being faced is structural breakup of the first stage due to dynamic pressure during entry. The side boosters of the Falcon Heavy would be good prospects for recovery attempts as they would have relatively lower velocity at stage separation. It may be possible to prevent damage during entry by using attitude control to keep the stages aligned with the entry flight path, stiffening the structure of the rocket bodies, and protecting the engine compartments. Recovering the second stage of the Falcon 9 would require full re-entry protection, but this stage is easier to stabilize during entry. The core stage of a Falcon Heavy would be the hardest to recover due to its high speed and length.

Musk’s National Press Club announcement of September 29th, 2011, shows that the recovery plan includes having the first stage actually reverse course and land vertically back near the launch pad. This means the rocket has to cancel all eastward velocity and gain westward velocity, as well as decelerating the vertical component during landing. This would require a significant amount of delta-V that would reduce the payload capacity of the Falcon 9, but with the Falcon Heavy, which has extra payload capacity and where at least two first stages would be recovered, the payload size reduction may not be that big an issue. If a launch site could be found with an island in the right location downrange, payload capacity could be gained while still recovering the stages. The actual landing would take place with extendable landing legs on a level surface (without a flame bucket) and would use only a single engine. SpaceX has posted a video of the proposed recovery system.

We will not know how successful this system is until there is a successful landing and evaluation of a stage’s condition. The first SpaceX recovery concept was a water landing, which would have subjected the engines to severe salt water corrosion. Since the current prices are based on no recoveries, any recoveries should allow significant launch cost reductions. SpaceX would presumably have to demonstrate a launch using the recovered stages before a paid launch, just as it has already done with all of its vehicles.

Musk has publicly pledged to continue his efforts for both lowering launch costs and improving capability, so the currently described version of the Falcon Heavy is not likely to be the “last rung” in his launch ladder. With 53 metric tons of payload, the Falcon Heavy is not considered a “true” Heavy Lift Vehicle (HLV), which is generally considered to be one that can lift 70 metric tons or more. NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) is an HLV that is slated for an initial version that can lift 70 metric tons and a later version that can lift 130 metric tons.

SpaceX, however, has expressed confidence it could build a Falcon “Super Heavy” launcher with a 150 metric ton payload capability and a cost per flight of $300 million. This results in a launch cost of $1,000 per pound, which is close to the per-pound cost of the Falcon Heavy but with a payload three times larger — a payload even larger than the largest payload projected for NASA’s SLS.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell wrote the following in a letter published in Space News (February 7, 2011):

“Based on SpaceX’s proven track record in scaling tenfold in thrust from Falcon 1 to Falcon 9, we are confident we can scale tenfold again and develop a heavy-lift launch vehicle with a 150 metric ton to orbit capability. We can do so for no more than $2.5 billion, within five years, on a firm, fixed price basis with payment made only on achieving hardware milestones.”

Musk was also quoted by Aviation Week (December 2, 2010):

“We’re confident we could get a fully operational vehicle to the pad for $2.5 billion — and not only that, I will personally guarantee it,” Musk says. In addition, the final product would be a fully accounted cost per flight of $300 million, he asserts. “I’ll also guarantee that,” he adds, though he cautions this does not include a potential upper-stage upgrade.

Musk has also made public statements about SpaceX plans to send humans to Mars in the next 10 to 20 years. Landing humans on Mars will take much larger in-space vehicles, some of which would require a 15 meter diameter faring which in turn requires a 10 meter diameter booster. No currently proposed heavy lift booster is this wide. Musk’s interest in Mars as a destination provides reason to believe that he will attempt to produce a cost-effective booster capable of launching Mars-bound, crew-carrying vehicles within 10 years.

Significant announcements from SpaceX can be expected as long as the company’s successes continue.

See also:

Falcon Heavy payload and launch cost comparison with Delta 4 Heavy
Complete video of the April 2011 Falcon Heavy Press Conference
Statement on launch costs from SpaceX CEO Elon Musk
NSS website version of this article
NSS website section on Space Transportation

SpaceX announces it will try for "fully and rapidly reusable rocket"

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk spoke at the National Press Club September 29 about SpaceX plans to develop a “fully and rapidly reusable rocket.” Musk stated that reusable rockets pose a very difficult engineering problem, but he believes it can be solved. Stating that SpaceX has a design that works on paper and in simulations, he emphasized that reality is the ultimate test. Although there is no guarantee of success, SpaceX is going to give it a try.

The SpaceX design for a reusable Falcon 9 rocket brings the first stage back to land propulsively. The second stage would do a re-entry burn, re-enter with a heat shield, steer and then rotate to land propulsively. Video below:

For the technically inclined, Musk reported that the video animation is not completely accurate, in part because the animation was completed before the analysis was, and in part to withhold some proprietary information.

“If it works, it will be huge,” Musk said, predicting a possible 100-fold reduction in launch costs. If a Falcon 9 costs $50 million and is re-used 1,000 times, that means its contribution to each flight would be only $50 thousand. The fuel for a Falcon 9 costs about $200 thousand. He did not supply a time frame for any of these developments.

Musk prefaced his remarks by talking about the importance of space and of life becoming multiplanetary, stating that the importance of that on an evolutionary scale can be compared to life coming onto land or developing from single cells to multicellular organisms. He also pointed out that space is a form of life insurance: extinction events are fairly common in geologic history, and “we are the only species that can use consciousness to avoid this.”

SpaceX recently filed papers with the FAA regarding planned test flights of a reusable suborbital vehicle (called “Grasshopper”) that is 106 feet tall and built around the first-stage fuel tank of the existing Falcon 9.

One-hour video of the full press conference:

Saving America from the Space Gap

by Howard Bloom and Jon LaBore

When a Russian Soyuz rocket carrying three tons of equipment crashed over Siberia on August 24th, Americans got a brief glimpse of a silent scandal: the space gap. That gap—planned in the days of the Bush Administration—means that for five years or more, America has no way to get humans into space. Yes, now that the Space Shuttle has been officially retired, the only way we can get Americans into space is to buy space on Russia’s Soyuz rockets from the Russian Federal Space Agency at a cost of $50 million per seat. With a price rise to $63 million in 2014.

But never fear. Four white knights are coming to the rescue. They come from America’s private sector. The development and deployment of their vehicles will mean not only jobs, but the beginning of a true space infrastructure. Like the builders of the transcontinental railroad a hundred years ago, these companies are building a trail into America’s next frontier.

The companies are Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Paypal co-founder Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), Eren and Fatih Ozmen’s Sierra Nevada Corporation, and big-time airline builder and defense contractor Boeing. In April of this year, NASA awarded these four between $22 and $92 million each in the second round of its Commercial Crew Development Program (CCDev-2), a commercial effort aimed to get Americans back into space on American rockets…safely, reliably, and at a considerable savings in cost.

Below are the launch vehicles that America’s private sector is working on to yank us out of the space gap and into the future.


Boeing’s CST-100 will be a reusable, capsule-shaped spacecraft with both a crew module and a service module. Boeing says it will rely on proven, affordable materials that can transport up to seven people or a combination of people and cargo. It will be bigger than the 1960s Apollo command module that carried astronauts to the Moon, but smaller than NASA’s Orion. The CST-100 will be able to hold up to seven people, or a mixture of cargo and crew. Unlike SpaceX’s Dragon, the CST-100 is designed only for low Earth orbit.

The CST-100 is designed to dock with the International Space Station and with Bigelow Aerospace’s Commercial Space Station—the first privately owned space station. Bigelow Aerospace already has two test modules for its private space station in orbit and plans on having the first commercial space habitats by 2015.

With sufficient funding from NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program, Boeing could be ready to begin transporting astronauts to the International Space Station aboard its reusable CST-100 capsule in the first quarter of 2016 with all-NASA crews, says John Elbon, Boeing vice president and program manager of the company’s Houston-based Commercial Crew Program.

In August, 2011, Boeing chose United Launch Alliance’s nine year old Atlas V rocket as the delivery vehicle for the CST-100. A series of three test flights with the Atlas V and the CST-100 capsule are planned for 2015. But there’s a hitch. The Atlas V uses Russian-made engines, Russian RD-180s, for its first stage.

The good news? The CST-100 will also fly on SpaceX’s Falcon 9, an American rocket with American-built engines.


The SpaceX Dragon capsule is a crew and cargo delivery spacecraft that will carry up to seven people or a mixture of personnel and cargo. The Dragon will launch atop an Elon Musk SpaceX rocket, the Falcon 9 (more about that below). In December of 2010, the Dragon became the first crew capsule ever placed in orbit and recovered by a private company. NASA is expected to give approval for the Dragon to dock with the International Space Station this December on the Dragon’s second test flight. It is likely that the Russian rocket failure might delay this flight into January.

The Dragon spacecraft is made up of a pressurized capsule and an unpressurized trunk used to transport cargo and/or additional crew members to Low Earth Orbit.  The Dragon is reuseable. It can be launched, returned to Earth, and launched again. In addition to International Space Station missions, the Dragon capsule is also designed to remain in space as an independent, orbiting space laboratory (DragonLab.)

And, according to SpaceX’s Musk, the Dragon has been designed from the beginning to be used for a mission to Mars.

The Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket. Its first stage is powered by nine American-made SpaceX Merlin engines. The second stage is powered by one Merlin engine.

Falcon 9 has had two successful flights. The first in June, 2010 and the second in December, 2010. On the second flight, the Dragon capsule orbited the Earth twice before splashing down.

The Falcon Heavy– a super high-capacity version of the Falcon 9–will be a stretched Falcon 9 rocket with two additional Falcon 9 boosters attached to either side of the first stage of the rocket. The Falcon Heavy will be capable of sending missions to Mars.

Sierra Nevada Corporation:

The Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser builds on a previous NASA design, the HL-20.  The Dream Chaser is a space-shuttle-lookalike for a reason. Its shape—a lifting body—will allow it to take off vertically and land horizontally. (In a lifting body, the craft’s body acts as a wing and produces lift.) Capable of holding a crew of up to seven people or a mixture of crew and cargo, the HL-20’s missions will include delivering and returning crew and critical cargo to the International Space Station. The HL-20 will launch using an Atlas V. Yes, the Atlas V with Russian rockets. Making us once again reliant on the Russians. The Dream Chaser is scheduled to take its first flight by 2014.

The fully-reusable Dream Chaser will glide back to Earth and can land at almost any aircraft runway in the world.

Blue Origin:

Blue Origin is working on (1) an orbital crew vehicle capable of carrying astronauts or cargo to the International Space station on an Atlas V rocket, and (2) a re-usable suborbital rocket called the New Shepard. The company also aims to eventually develop a reusable orbital rocket so they can also carry their orbital crew vehicle on their own rocket. Blue Origin’s goal is to bring down the cost of getting into space.

Development of the orbital crew vehicle is being partly supported by NASA’s CCDev program. In an entirely different program, NASA has also contracted to fly some suborbital experiments on the New Shepard rocket (Blue Origin being one of seven companies selected for such experiments).

The New Shepard is a rocket-propelled vehicle capable of carrying three or more astronauts into suborbital space. The New Shepard is designed to carry two kinds of passengers into a microgravity environment: space tourists and researchers.

The New Shepard is fully reusable. Its pressurized crew capsule for astronauts and experiments sits atop its propulsion module. Upon re-entering, the crew capsule separates from the propulsion module to be recovered via parachute, while the New Shepard propulsion module will land vertically.

Flights will take place from Blue Origin’s own launch site, which is already operating in West Texas.

Blue Origin reported that a test vehicle was lost at Mach 1.2 and an altitude of 45,000 feet on August 24th because “a flight instability drove an angle of attack that triggered our range safety system to terminate thrust on the vehicle.” Undeterred by this setback,  Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, stated in a letter on his website: “Not the outcome any of us wanted, but we’re signed up for this to be hard…. We’re already working on our next development vehicle.”

SpaceX readies for first private space station docking in December

NASA has agreed in principle to allow the SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule to dock with the International Space Station. Launch of the Dragon on a SpaceX Falcon 9 is scheduled for November 30 with the docking to occur 9 days later. This will be the 3rd launch of Falcon 9.

Original plans called for an additional flight to first demonstrate a rendezvous with the space station with actual docking to occur on a later flight. These two flights have now been combined into one flight, with final approval from NASA expected. This will be the first demonstration that a privately-developed space transportation system can deliver cargo to and from the space station.

Technicians work on the Dragon spacecraft in SpaceX facility in Hawthorne, CA
Technicians work on the Dragon spacecraft in SpaceX facility in Hawthorne, CA

See full SpaceX press release about the November launch.

The Dragon spacecraft heat shield is designed not only for re-entry from Earth orbit (at 17,000 MPH) but also for re-entry from a lunar-return trajectory (at 25,000 MPH).

Work also continues on modifying the Dragon spacecraft to human-rate it by adding a launch escape system. SpaceX received a $75 million NASA contract in April to develop this system. SpaceX plans to further modify the system in the future to make the spacecraft capable of landing on any solid surface in the Solar System. See the short video below.

NASA Selects Seven Firms to Provide Suborbital Flight Services

NASA has selected seven companies to integrate and fly technology payloads on commercial suborbital reusable platforms that carry payloads near the boundary of space and back.

This arrangement marks the first time that NASA has contracted with commercial partners to provide flights into space on a suborbital spacecraft, and represents another important endorsement of the value of regular commercial space access for a wide range of science and educational applications.

As part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, each successful vendor will receive an indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract. These two-year contracts, worth a combined total of $10 million, will allow NASA to draw from a pool of commercial space companies to deliver payload integration and flight services. The flights will carry a variety of payloads to help meet the agency’s research and technology needs.

“Through this catalog approach, NASA is moving toward the goal of making frequent, low-cost access to near-space available to a wide range of engineers, scientists and technologists,” said NASA Chief Technologist Bobby Braun at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The government’s ability to open the suborbital research frontier to a broad community of innovators will enable maturation of the new technologies and capabilities needed for NASA’s future missions in space.”

The selected companies are:

– Armadillo Aerospace, Heath, Texas
– Near Space Corp., Tillamook, Ore.
– Masten Space Systems, Mojave, Calif.
– Up Aerospace Inc., Highlands Ranch, Colo.
– Virgin Galactic, Mojave, Calif.
– Whittinghill Aerospace LLC, Camarillo, Calif.
– XCOR, Mojave, Calif.

SpaceX Plans for Mars

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has made numerous public statements about SpaceX plans to send humans to Mars in the next 10 to 20 years (e.g. see Discovery News and PC Magazine). The most recent statement was at an August 1 meeting of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) meeting in San Diego. A video of the Q & A session is below.

13-minute video of Q & A session at AIAA meeting with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, August 1, 1011: