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Falcon 9 launch
The first Falcon 9 rocket lifts off Friday from Cape Canaveral. (credit: Chris Thompson/SpaceX)

The Falcon 9 flies


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In the days and weeks leading up to Friday’s launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9, people both within and outside the company were warning that first launches where inherently problematic. “Historically, I think it might be something like a 50/50 shot of the first flight [of a new rocket] succeeding,” SpaceX CEO and CTO Elon Musk said in a teleconference with reporters on Thursday. While one can play with the numbers (what constitutes a new rocket, for example, instead of a variant of an existing one?) there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that first launches are prone to failure. Last year the first launch of the KSLV-1, South Korea’s first orbital launch vehicle, failed when the rocket’s payload fairing did not separate as planned. Iran’s first orbital launch attempt using its Safir rocket in August 2008 apparently failed, although Iranian officials claimed that it placed a satellite in orbit. And SpaceX’s own Falcon 1 rocket failed on its first launch in 2006; that rocket didn’t place a payload into orbit until its fourth launch attempt in 2008.

Musk hoped to beat the odds, at least to some degree. “My personal assessment of the likelihood of success is probably 70-80 percent,” he said, then putting things in a more colorful form of perspective, added, “I should point out that this is less than the probability of success in Russian roulette.” Getting both stages to fly correctly would make the launch a “great day”, but he indicated that he would be satisfied with at least getting a partial demonstration of the vehicle’s capabilities on its inaugural launch. “Given that this is a test flight, whatever percentage of getting to orbit we achieve would still be considered a good day,” he said.

“One of the best days of my life”

SpaceX had hoped to carry out this test flight of the Falcon 9 earlier this year, but encountered delays with the rocket and, later, with a new flight termination system required by the Air Force for launching from Cape Canaveral. Final approval of that system didn’t come until the day before the scheduled launch, after extended delays by Ensign-Bickford, the company that developed it for SpaceX. “There were I think some elements of it we underestimated, some elements that our suppliers underestimated,” Musk said before the launch.

On launch day that system appeared to threaten the launch: range officials indicated that they were getting weak signals from the unit while the strongback—the gantry-like structure that supported the rocket as it was erected on the pad—was in its launch position. Once that was resolved, they had to wait until a boat left a restricted zone in waters beyond the launch pad.

“My personal assessment of the likelihood of success is probably 70-80 percent,” Musk said before the launch. “I should point out that this is less than the probability of success in Russian roulette.”

With the range issues resolved, the countdown started from T-15 minutes for a launch at 1:30 pm EDT. With an audience on the Internet struggling to follow the launch (SpaceX provided a webcast of the launch on its site, but many could not access it, and those who could found far less commentary and information than, say, a typical NASA launch) the countdown ticked toward zero—only to be suddenly stopped with only a few second left, around the time the rocket’s nine main engines were to ignite.

Afterwards Musk explained that the abort was automatically triggered by computers after data from engine number three was out of bounds. “The pressure rise on engine three was higher than expected,” he said, causing the abort. While the launch window extended until 3 pm, many wondered, in the absence of additional details about the abort, whether the launch would be scrubbed for the day.

The fix for the abort turned out to be very simple. “We looked at the data and concluded that… we were being a little too conservative” in the range of acceptable pressures in the engine at ignition, Musk said. “So we widened that band [of allowable values and] reconfigured the engine three computer.”

A new launch time of 2:45 pm was announced, and the countdown, reset to T-15, started again with little fanfare or commentary from SpaceX. This time there was no abort: all the engines ignited and the rocket rose form the pad, chunks of ice looking like sparks as they fell off the rocket’s exterior and were illuminated by the engines’ plumes. The Falcon 9, at least, had avoided a worst-case scenario Musk had previously identified: an explosion on the pad.

Falcon 9 was on its way to orbit, but would it get there? Asked prior to the launch what portions of the launch concerned him the most, Musk said stage separation and ignition of the second stage engine were the two “scariest” parts of the flight. However, both seemed to go smoothly, and Falcon 9 and its payload, a boilerplate Dragon capsule, continued to ascent. The only problem viewers of the webcast noticed was a roll of the second stage later in its burn, which appeared to speed up prior to engine shutdown. Immediately after engine shutdown, though, SpaceX announced that the rocket had achieved orbit.

A couple hours later SpaceX confirmed that the Dragon spacecraft had achieved almost the precise orbit they had planned: a 250-kilometer circular orbit at an inclination of 34.5 degrees. The second-stage roll, Musk said in a post-launch teleconference, would be something they would examine, but did not affect the mission. “There was a little more roll than expected,” he said. “It didn’t affect the mission, it didn’t affect the accuracy of the orbit insertion.” He said they would be studying the roll “to make sure there’s not something potentially more significant behind it.”

“It’s been one of the best days of my life,” Musk said. “It’s certainly been one of the greatest days for the people of SpaceX.”

The only other significant issue SpaceX reported with the launch was the failure to recover the first stage. “The stage broke up on reentry,” he said, adding that they were in the process of recovering some of the debris. SpaceX had hoped to recover the stage not only to study it but also to see if it’s possible to refurbish and reuse the stage on future launches. “This was not a primary objective, kind of a nice to have,” Musk said.

So how does it feel to successfully launch a new rocket? “When the rocket achieved orbit there was tremendous relief and elation at SpaceX. People really have put so much blood, sweat, and tears into Falcon 9 and bringing that to launch,” Musk said. “Upon liftoff I’d say there was sort of relief that it cleared the pad. Things were obviously extremely tense here.”

“It’s been one of the best days of my life,” he said. “It’s certainly been one of the greatest days for the people of SpaceX.”

A spectrum of reaction

A lot was riding on the launch not just for SpaceX, but for the commercial space industry and also NASA, since for many the company had become synonymous with the emphasis on commercial spaceflight in the Obama Administration’s new plans for the space agency. Even without that change in direction, NASA was eager to see a successful launch to hasten the day it can use it to fly cargo to the International Space Station once the shuttle is retired.

With the successful launch, a wide range of organizations and individuals wasted no time in congratulating the company for the flight. “The broader commercial space community has received a fantastic piece of good news today,” said Mark Sirangelo, chairman of the industry group the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, in a statement released shortly after the launch.

“It’s hard not to launch into hyperbole at the success of the first Falcon 9 test flight. It is a tremendous achievement,” said The Planetary Society (whose board of directors includes Musk) in a statement Friday. “In advancing commercial spaceflight, today’s flight of Falcon 9 could be the first small step towards relieving NASA launchers of the burden of low-Earth orbit, thus freeing the U.S. space agency to reach new worlds.”

Even NASA administrator Charles Bolden congratulated the company in a statement. “Space X’s accomplishment is an important milestone in the commercial transportation effort and puts the company a step closer to providing cargo services to the International Space Station,” he said. “This launch of the Falcon 9 gives us even more confidence that a resupply vehicle will be available after the space shuttle fleet is retired.”

Not everyone, though, was as effusive in their praise of the successful launch. Congresswoman Suzanne Kosmas (D-FL), whose district includes the Kennedy Space Center, called the launch “a significant step in the development of the commercial space industry”. However, she added there was still a need for “a robust, NASA-led human spaceflight program in order to maintain our international leadership in space and keep our economy strong.”

“It’s hard not to launch into hyperbole at the success of the first Falcon 9 test flight. It is a tremendous achievement,” said The Planetary Society.

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, was also guarded in her congratulations to the company, calling it “a belated sign that efforts to develop modest commercial space cargo capabilities are showing some promising signs” in a statement released within minutes of the launch. “This test does not change the fact that commercial space programs are not ready to close the gap in human spaceflight if the space shuttle is retired this year with no proven replacement capability and the Constellation program is simultaneously cancelled as the President proposes.”

Musk reacted strongly to Hutchison’s statement in the post-launch press conference. “I don’t understand why she’s trying to hurt a Texas company,” he said, noting that the company, while headquartered in southern California, does its engine development and testing at a site near Waco, employing a couple hundred people. “We’re one of the fastest growing employers in Texas. Why is she trying to hurt a Texas company? That’s wrong, and the people of Texas ought to be aware of that.”

After the press conference, the political publication POLITICO got a reaction from Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), one of the most vocal critics of the commercial space elements of the White House NASA plan and of the perceived lack of progress made by companies like SpaceX. Shelby dismissed the flight as simply repeating what “NASA accomplished in 1964,” he told POLITICO. “Belated progress for one so-called commercial provider must not be confused with progress for our nation’s human space flight program,” he said. “As a nation, we cannot place our future space flight on one fledgling company’s definition of success.”

A vindication for commercial space?

As some of the reaction above makes clear, the launch takes place in the midst of a heated debate about the future direction of NASA and the role that commercial spaceflight providers like SpaceX should play. Many commercial space advocates feared that a failure, while not unexpected given the historical record of success on inaugural launches, would play into hands of opponents of the plan. But what will a success like Friday’s launch do?

Prior to the launch, Musk argued that the launch should not be seen as a referendum on commercial space. The Falcon 9 launch, he said, “should not be a verdict on the viability of commercial space. Commercial space is the only way forward.” Later, he said, “I hope that people don’t put too much emphasis on our success because it’s simply not correct.”

“I feel like sort of a political punching bag, a whipping boy, I suppose,” he said of the attention the company has received from opponents of the president’s plan over the last few months. “The opponents of the commercial approach have taken a very calculated strategy of attacking SpaceX” while ignoring the record of success by United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets, he said.

Sen. Hutchison (R-TX) called the launch “a belated sign that efforts to develop modest commercial space cargo capabilities are showing some promising signs”.

After the launch, Musk for a time appeared to argue that the launch was a verdict after all, and a positive one, for commercial space and its future role in NASA. “This bodes very well for the Obama plan,” he said. “It really helps vindicate the approach that he’s taking.” Later in the press conference, though, he qualified those statements. “It’s certainly a very strong data point in favor of the president’s plan. I do think it vindicates the president’s plan to some degree. I wouldn’t say that it shows with unequivocal accuracy that the president’s plan is correct,” he said.

The path ahead for SpaceX

With the Falcon 9 demonstration launch a success, the company is now planning to move ahead with the first of three planned missions that are part of its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement with NASA to develop a capability to service the ISS. The first of those launches, a demonstration flight of a full-fledged Dragon spacecraft but one that does not visit the ISS, is on track for later this summer, Musk said. The Falcon 9 rocket for that mission has been built and is ready to ship to Cape Canaveral, while the Dragon spacecraft is undergoing final reviews.

The second COTS flight, planned for the second quarter of next year, will launch a Dragon that is currently planned to approach the ISS, but not berth with the station. However, Musk said prior to Friday’s launch that the company has been in discussions with NASA about adding that capability to the mission, which under the original plan would take place on the third and final COTS demonstration flight. “Our aspirational goal is to deliver cargo on COTS flight 2,” he said. “This makes COTS flight 3 effectively a backup flight to COTS 2.”

“This bodes very well for the Obama plan,” Musk said after the launch. “It really helps vindicate the approach that he’s taking.”

SpaceX remains interested in human spaceflight as well, with Musk reiterating past statements that the company would be ready to fly people within three years of contract award (including one year of schedule contingency) to develop a crewed version of Dragon. They key aspect of that development would be a launch escape system. Musk said they have “a very exciting new architecture” for that system: rather than an escape tower mounted on top of the capsule that would pull it away, as was done on previous capsules and was being developed for Orion, the escape thrusters would be built into the sidewalls of the capsule and be available through all phases of the launch. In addition, he said, those engines could be used to allow a Dragon spacecraft to make a return on land, rather than splashdown in the ocean. “I think that’s really the right way to land a spaceship,” he said.

Looking ahead, Musk said he’s had some discussions with NASA about the development of a “super heavy lift” version of Falcon that could launch from a refurbished Launch Complex 39 at KSC. “Based on initial discussions NASA seems really excited about the idea,” he said.

In the near term, though, the successful launch of the Falcon 9 may open up some additional business from other customers who were waiting for a successful launch to either make a decision to sign a launch contract with SpaceX or simply announce an existing contract. “I think you can expect some major announcements with respect to new launches signed,” he said. “We’re going to be announcing a number of major contracts that were actually awarded before this launch and no doubt even more that will be awarded after.”

Musk didn’t indicate who those potential new customers might be, but one potential major customer is Iridium, a company that operates a constellation of low Earth orbit communications satellites. Last week Iridium announced a contract with Thales Alenia Space for the construction of a new generation of satellites to replace its existing fleet: 72 satellites plus nine ground spares. Launch arrangements for those new satellites haven’t been announced, although Space News reported last month that the company had made a $19-million downpayment on potential future launches to SpaceX.

“This is the dawn of a new era in space exploration, a very exciting era, and one which I think will lead to the democratization of space, making space accessible to everyone eventually,” he said after the launch. “This is really an historic moment.”


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