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SpaceX tackles reusable heavy launch vehicle

SpaceX announces it will develop a Falcon 9 booster, an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) class vehicle.
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Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) announced today that it will develop a Falcon 9 booster — an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) class vehicle.

A key goal of SpaceX is developing a family of launch vehicles intended to increase the reliability and reduce the cost of access to space by a factor of ten.

SpaceX, headquartered in El Segundo, California, is bankrolled and run by Elon Musk, a successful entrepreneur that among past activities co-founded PayPal, a leading electronic payment system.

According to a press statement detailing company plans, the Falcon 9 would be capable of launching approximately 21,000 pounds (9,500 kilograms) to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in its medium configuration and 55,000 pounds (25,000 kilograms) to LEO in its heavy configuration, a lift capacity “greater than any other launch vehicle,” the SpaceX statement said.

In the medium configuration, Falcon 9 would be priced at $27 million per flight with a 12 ft (3.6 m) fairing and $35 million with a 17 ft fairing.  Prices include all launch range and third party insurance costs, making Falcon 9 the most cost efficient vehicle in its class worldwide.

First booster, yet-to-fly
SpaceX initially intended to follow its first vehicle development, Falcon 1, with the intermediate class Falcon 5 launch vehicle. 

But the company now explains that, in response to customer requirements for low cost enhanced launch capability, SpaceX has accelerated development of an EELV-class vehicle. Therefore it is upgrading Falcon 5 to Falcon 9. 

According to the company statement, SpaceX has sold Falcon 9 to a U.S. government customer. SpaceX still plans to make Falcon 5 available in late 2007.

The announcement today comes at a time when the company has yet to fly its Falcon 1 booster.

The maiden launch for Falcon 1 is now scheduled for fall of this year from the SpaceX island launch complex in the Kwajalein Atoll. A second Falcon 1 mission is slated to follow a classified launch of a Titan 4 booster from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Falconeering the future
Musk told that Falcon 9 is intended for three roles:

  • All sizes of Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) satellites, including commercial and government customers.
  • Heavy LEO satellites, which are mainly U.S. Department of Defense spacecraft.
  • Resupply of the International Space Station with cargo and later crew transportation.

“The prices we are showing do not account for reusability, so I’m hopeful that we will be able to reduce costs significantly over time.  Also, this is still the first generation of our propulsion technology,” Musk said. The SpaceX Merlin 2 engine will benefit from a very significant thrust upgrade and also be considerably cheaper per pound of thrust than Merlin 1, he said. 

“As a result, the generation of rockets based on Merlin 2 will be much cheaper per unit mass to orbit than the Falcon line, which is based on Merlin 1,” Musk said.

Musk noted that the goal of SpaceX is to make Mars colonization affordable.

That means growing to super-heavy 100-plus ton lift, super-cheap and super-reliable launcher, Musk said. “Falcon 1 was the first step and Falcon 9 is the second step.”