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Elon Musk discussed his plans for vehicles even larger than the Falcon 9 during the SpaceVision2005 conference on November 12. (credit: J. Foust)

Big plans for SpaceX

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and its founder and CEO, Elon Musk, have never been shy about sharing their bold plans for the future. While the company was developing its first, small booster, the Falcon 1, the company introduced the Falcon 5, a medium-class rocket, and, two months ago, the Falcon 9 rocket, designed to compete head-to-head with the EELV-class Atlas 5 and Delta 4. Bold plans, indeed, for a company that has yet to launch a single rocket.

And yet, Falcon 9 is not the end of the line for SpaceX’s rocket development program. Speaking at SpaceVision2005, the annual conference for Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) held November 11-13 at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign—just two weeks before the launch of the first Falcon 1—Musk shared with the audience his plans for even larger rockets and rocket engines, and his thoughts on the business in general.

Merlin 2 and the BFR

At the heart of the Falcon launch vehicle program has been the development of the Merlin engine. With the exception of the Kestrel engine (also developed by SpaceX) used on the second stage of the Falcon 1, all stages of the Falcon 1, 5, and 9 use one or more Merlin engines. Musk described this as an effort to be the “Southwest Airlines of space”: just as that low-cost carrier flies Boeing 737 jets exclusively, using Merlin engines throughout the Falcon family offers significant cost savings.

However, the development of the Merlin engine was “unexpectedly difficult”, Musk said, slowing down development of the Falcon 1. “The single biggest issue we had was with the ablative” engine chamber. The company has had to “detune” the engine slightly, lowering its specific impulse below its original specification. “It was the piece that we thought would be the easiest.” In retrospect, he said, it probably would have been better to go with a regeneratively-cooled chamber instead.

“The single biggest issue we had was with the ablative” engine chamber, Musk said. “It was the piece that we thought would be the easiest.”

Because that problem has been solved (the final qualification test of the Merlin was scheduled for around the same time that Musk spoke at the conference; he kept his phone on the podium just in case a call about the test came in during his speech) that engine design issue might now seem merely academic. However, Musk brought it up after an audience member noticed during his introductory presentation that the largest test stand, nicknamed “BFTS”, at the company’s Texas engine test facility could handle nearly five times the 3.5-million newton thrust of the first stage of the Falcon 9. Why so big?

The answer is the Merlin 2. Musk said that this engine, under conceptual design at the moment, will be “a hell of a lot bigger than the Merlin 1.” Although the company doesn’t plan to release specifications for the engine until some time next year, he later added that the Merlin 2 would be the largest rocket engine in the world, “where an engine is defined as one thrust chamber.” He included that caveat to specifically exclude the RD-170 engine developed for the giant Energia launch vehicle. That engine, with four thrust chambers, could generate 7.9 million newtons of thrust, slightly more than the single-chamber F-1 used on the Saturn 5. Musk said that the Merlin 2 will be, in general, a scaled-up version of the Merlin 1. One change that SpaceX does plan, he noted, was to replace the ablative engine chamber with a regeneratively-cooled one.

The development of Merlin 2 begs the question: what is SpaceX planning that requires such a powerful engine? In past talks Musk has hinted at the development of something called the “BFR” (where B stands for “big” and R for “rocket”), a heavy-lift vehicle far larger than the Falcon family of vehicles. At SpaceVision2005 Musk disclosed that the BFR, in its current iteration, would use “multiple” Merlin 2 engines. The BFR would be able to place 100 tons in low Earth orbit, putting it in competition with NASA’s planned shuttle-derived heavy-lift launcher. The BFR is so big, Musk said, that it’s too large for the BFTS at their Texas test site: even if they beefed up the stand, he said, the overpressure from the engine tests would break windows in a nearby town. Musk said they would have to test the vehicle either at the launch site or, perhaps, at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

One issue that SpaceX is grappling with is who would need the BFR. “That’s where things get a little dodgy,” Musk said. “We’re not quite sure how to pay for that vehicle.” While Musk said he sees a long-term market transporting the infrastructure for colonization of the Moon and Mars, he hopes that in the near-term “NASA will buy from us”, particularly if the cost of the BFR is on the order of ten percent of a shuttle-derived alternative. “The DOD might also have some ideas for putting some big things in space,” he added. Regardless, the development of the BFR will be a costly proposition: he estimates that the Merlin 2 engine alone could cost up to $100 million to develop, a price that would still be far lower than the development of similar large engines in the past. “I’ve got a plan to help pay for some of that, but it may not be enough.”

Markets and financing

During his presentation, Musk made it clear that SpaceX was definitely interested in human spaceflight. “There’s likely to be a market there for personal spaceflight,” he said. “It’s likely quite large, but it’s hard to say.” He said while the company currently bases its business plan on satellite launches, “I think over time the human spaceflight market will be much larger than the satellite market. It’s just hard to say how long it will take for that to develop.”

“There’s likely to be a market there for personal spaceflight,” he said. “I think over time the human spaceflight market will be much larger than the satellite market. It’s just hard to say how long it will take for that to develop.”

Of particular near-term interest for SpaceX is NASA’s plans to solicit proposals for commercial ISS crew and cargo transportation. Musk noted, for example, that the Falcon 9 will have a “man-rating factor of safety”, although he did not elaborate on the technical details associated with that statement. He believes that SpaceX is the “leading candidate” to provide commercial ISS services. “In fact, I don’t know of anyone besides SpaceX that could realistically do it in the time frame under consideration, within the next five years,” he said. He also noted that the company has looked at America’s Space Prize, a $50-million award from Bigelow Aerospace for the development of a manned orbital transport by 2010, and concluded that it is “extraordinary difficult to win.”

However, Musk said the company is interested in launching other companies’ manned spacecraft as well as developing and launching its own. The company will not “internally subsidize launches” of its own manned spacecraft: “We will sell internally the launch vehicle for the same price as we sell it externally.”

Developing a new manned spacecraft in addition to larger launch vehicles becomes an expensive proposition. Musk said he has invested “about $100 million” so far in SpaceX. “I expected to invest less” through the development of the Falcon 1, he added . “There’s a limit to how far I can carry the company.”

Musk said that he hopes that with a successful flight of the Falcon 1 he will be able to raise an outside round of investment on the order of $50–100 million by early next year. “Hopefully the $100 million is the only money I have to put in personally.” He said than an IPO for the company is a possibility in three to four years. Musk is not in a rush to take the company public because of the “overhead” associated with it, based on his experience with PayPal. “When you’re public it’s like painting a target on your head, saying ‘sue me.’”

Musk said that he hopes that with a successful flight of the Falcon 1 he will be able to raise an outside round of investment on the order of $50–100 million by early next year. “Hopefully the $100 million is the only money I have to put in personally.”

SpaceX right now has about 160 employees, including about 40 working on propulsion, 30 on avionics, 30 on structures, and 50 in manufacturing. Musk said he that while he would like to slow down the rate of growth the company has experienced since its inception over three years ago, he envisions that SpaceX could grow as large as 400-500 people, but no larger. “Companies do change once they grow beyond a certain level,” he said. “Once everyone doesn’t know everyone, the company becomes slightly different.”

To speak at the conference within a couple weeks of his company’s first launch, Musk made an exceedingly short trip to Illinois on Saturday, flying in on a private jet just before he was scheduled to speak and leaving immediately afterwards. Why make the special trip to speak before an audience of about 150 people, mostly college students? “I think you guys are true believers, and I do what I can to encourage interest in space, and try to get things started,” he said. “And, actually, I thought we would have launched by now.”


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ISPCS 2015