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Falcon rocket rides slow road toward flight The march to the launch pad isn't easy for SpaceX's Falcon 1 launch vehicle. The first liftoff, with a military satellite payload, could take place by November.
The Falcon 1 rocket stands on its mobile launcher in this artist's conception. The first liftoff could take place this autumn from California.
The Falcon 1 rocket stands on its mobile launcher in this artist's conception. The first liftoff could take place this autumn from California.Spacex / SpaceX
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Time is drawing closer for the maiden liftoff of the privately financed Falcon 1 launch vehicle, built by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of El Segundo, Calif.

But the march to the launch pad has not been easy. The launch company, also known as SpaceX, has encountered engine troubles, supplier problems, mounds of regulatory paperwork and other costly woes requiring far more money to be spent than initially projected.

The SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket is headed for a September delivery to Launch Complex 3 West at  Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Once in position, the launcher will undergo an on-the-pad firing of its main engine, leading to a potential first flight toward the end of November.

Onboard the Falcon’s initial voyage is TacSat-1, built and integrated by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory for the Office of Force Transformation within the Defense Department.

Falcon 1 is a two-stage launch vehicle, powered by liquid oxygen and rocket-grade kerosene. The vehicle’s main engine is called Merlin, with a SpaceX Kestrel engine powering the booster’s second stage. Falcon’s first stage is rigged for a water landing under parachute, to be picked up by a ship in a process similar to recovery of the space shuttle solid rocket boosters.

SpaceX is developing a five-engine version of the single-engine Falcon 1 booster — the Falcon 5 — that is slated to be completed for launch in mid-2005.

SpaceX says Falcon 1, a light-class launch vehicle, is priced at $5.9 million, and Falcon 5, a medium-lift launch vehicle, is priced at $12 million, plus modest launch range costs.

Growing pains
Elon Musk, the company’s chairman and chief executive officer, detailed Falcon’s growing pains and its projected first flight at the 18th annual Conference on Small Satellites, held here Aug. 9-12 and sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Utah State University.

Musk founded SpaceX in June 2002, making use of his personal fortunes gained in the sale of such ventures as PayPal, the world's leading electronic payment system. He is reticent in detailing the bankrolling of Falcon 1.

"I don’t want to say specific numbers. But I’ve certainly spent more than I expected to spend," Musk said in an interview here with Space News. "On Falcon 1 alone I’m unlikely to recoup my investment, but with Falcon 5 and Falcon 1 together, I think that I probably will."

Musk said the longer time period to launch takes more development money, also meaning that customer payments are delayed. There are prospective customers waiting in the wings, too, he said, "that are happy to sign up as soon as they see a launch that works."

Difficult road to follow
Engine problems have slowed the time to launch, Musk said. "We’re developing two engines. These are state-of-the-art, world-class, world-beating engines. These are not just sort of ho-hum engines."

In the context of engine developments, Musk said, the pace has been extremely fast. Problems with the Merlin engine have largely centered on turbo-pump related issues, fuel inlet problems, as well as bearing housing and seal troubles. These issues are not markedly different from those experienced by others who have gone down a similar engine development path.

"It’s just that it is a very difficult road to follow," Musk said. "It’s damn hard, basically. It is tough to get there."

One aspect that has delayed readying the Falcon’s main engine is that SpaceX engineers may have set slightly too high a standard for the performance of the engine, Musk said. "The way it’s looking right now, our engine might be 1 percent below our specifications, but still be the best engine ever done. We prefer not to … but it looks like we may be 1 percent low."

Environmental launch requirements
Another troublesome area in moving the Falcon to first flight has been responding to a hefty number of environmental launch requirements at Vandenberg Air Force Base, at a cost of several million dollars. "It just doesn’t stop. Just when you think it’s over … it’s like a Friday the 13th movie," he said.

"I’m very pro-environment, but let’s figure out how to do it better and not jump through a dozen hoops to achieve what is obvious in the first place. There should be a categorical exclusion [for Falcon], just like airplanes that use nontoxic propellants. That would be a huge improvement," Musk stated.

Another recommendation, Musk added, is to streamline the whole range safety approval process substantially. "I think it has been driven by cost-plus contractors being involved in this, who want to make it as expensive and complicated as possible. We will spend several million dollars before it’s all said and done on range safety-related things," he said.

Rather late than sorry
Meanwhile, preparations for Falcon’s launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base have been under way for a couple of months, with concrete, steel welding and other tasks expected to be done by month’s end. The pad is being outfitted to handle both Falcon 1 and Falcon 5 launchers, Musk said.

Given a successful liftoff of Falcon 1, Musk said he anticipates a significant stream of new customers. "I know for a fact that there are more than a half-a-dozen customers … not that they will sign up, but they’ll strongly consider signing up and probably will sign up at some point, even if it’s not immediately."

For Falcon 1, by 2007, the likely launch rate is probably five or six a year, Musk predicted.

"A lot depends on our first launch," Musk said. "Even though I really want to launch as soon as possible, I don’t want to take any chances. I’d rather be late than sorry."