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SpaceX Falcon 1 Flight 4 photo
A frame grab from the webcast of the Falcon 1 Flight 4 launch Sunday night shows the second stage soaring towards orbit. (credit: SpaceX)

A sign of progress

This week features a number of major anniversaries in the history of spaceflight. Wednesday, October 1 will mark the 50th anniversary of the formal establishment of NASA, a milestone that has been celebrated for the last 12 months, including last July, when the 50th anniversary of the signing of the legislation creating the agency took place. This Saturday, October 4, is the 51st anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, opening the Space Age. It will also be the fourth anniversary of the final flight of the privately developed SpaceShipOne vehicle, winning the $10-million Ansari X Prize.

That last event has been something of a high-water mark for the entrepreneurial NewSpace industry. At the time the field appeared to hold incredible promise, not just for prize-winner Scaled Composites—which had just signed a deal with Virgin Galactic to develop SpaceShipTwo—but for other ventures seeking to develop suborbital vehicles or otherwise play a role in the industry. A bright new era for commercial spaceflight was right around the corner.

“I think my nervous system almost got fried watching that flight,” Musk said. “I don’t know what else to say. It’s so fricking awesome my mind is blown.”

Four years later that corner has yet to be turned. The flotilla of suborbital vehicles that appeared ready to fly by now, for space tourism and other applications, remain under development. The vehicle perhaps farthest along, SpaceShipTwo, is still being built in Mojave. Its carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, was unveiled in July (see “A White Knight for more than personal spaceflight”, The Space Review, August 4, 2008), but as Flight International recently reported, the first test flight of the aircraft has been pushed back to later this year. Other ventures have unveiled designs and tested hardware (including some secretive flight tests in west Texas by Blue Origin) but are still a couple of years away at a minimum from having vehicles ready to fly.

On the orbital front, the major success in the last few years has been Bigelow Aerospace, which successfully launched a pair of subscale prototypes of its planned inflatable modules, laying the groundwork for future habitable spacecraft (see “Bigelow Aerospace’s big day at the rodeo”, The Space Review, July 24, 2006). However, as even company founder Robert Bigelow has acknowledged, those plans require the existence of accessible and affordable space transportation services, something difficult to come by today.

Enter SpaceX. Since the company’s formation six years ago, it has promised to revolutionize space access with a family of low-cost launch vehicles: first the small Falcon 1, and then the larger Falcon 9. Over the last several years the company has won a number of commercial and government deals, including a funded Space Act Agreement with NASA as part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program valued at $278 million to help develop its Dragon spacecraft for cargo and crew transportation to and from the International Space Station. However, technical success had eluded the company, with the first three Falcon 1 launches all failing to put payloads into orbit.

This made Sunday night’s fourth Falcon 1 launch all the more important. While SpaceX has continued to exude a calm confidence about its long-range success, even talking about developing enhanced versions of its Falcon 9 Heavy vehicle for Mars missions (see “Looking (far) ahead”, The Space Review, September 8, 2008), there was clearly a rush to bounce back from the failed third launch in early August, when an unexpected residual thrust from the first stage engine after shutdown caused the stage to collide with the second after separation. Quickly bouncing back from that latest failure could help erase lingering doubts about the company, particularly as it presses ahead with the Falcon 9 and seeks a commercial ISS resupply contract from NASA.

Doubtless, then, that many fingers were crossed at SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California headquarters—and elsewhere—at 7:15 pm EDT Sunday night, when the fourth Falcon 1 lifted off from the pad. This time, though, the Falcon 1 eluded the problems that jinxed the first three launches: no first-stage engine fire, no sloshing of fuel in the second stage, and no stage separation problems. (The cheering of the crowd at SpaceX’s headquarters, part of the soundtrack of the webcast of the launch, was particularly pronounced when the first stage separated cleanly and fell away harmlessly.) Ten minutes later, the Falcon 1 second stage and its dummy payload were in orbit.

No one seemed happier—or more overcome with emotion—about the successful launch than Musk himself. At times during a speech and an interview on the webcast immediately after the vehicle reached orbit he seemed to be at a loss for words. “I think my nervous system almost got fried watching that flight,” he said. “I don’t know what else to say. It’s so fricking awesome my mind is blown.”

The successful launch, he said, demonstrated that the long development process of the Falcon 1, including its previous failed launches, had reached its conclusion. “We’ve shown we’ve eliminated any design errors with the vehicle,” he said in the post-launch webcast interview. “It’s possible for us to have an unbroken success record now that the design issues are taken care of.”

“This was the smoothest launch countdown of all,” he added, noting the lack of holds or aborts during the countdown. “It just shows that the team is getting more and more practice at these things. The system is getting smoother and smoother as all of the bugs are getting worked out.”

Given the short preparation time for the launch, the Falcon 1 launch carried only a payload mass simulator, a hexagonal aluminum chamber 1.5 meters tall and weighing 165 kilograms, designed to simulate the physical characteristics of a satellite during launch but remaining attached to the second stage. The simulator, Musk said, had the nickname of Ratsat. “If somebody could take a picture of it [in orbit] there would be a logo of a rat on the satellite,” he said.

While China’s Shenzhou 7 mission last week will got more attention, it may be the SpaceX launch that is more influential in the long run.

Now, though, SpaceX is moving on to launching real satellites, starting with RazakSAT, a Malaysian remote sensing satellite scheduled for launch on a Falcon 1 early next year; the first Falcon 9 launch is now planned for the second quarter of 2009. “We look forward to doing a lot of Falcon 1 launches and a lot of Falcon 9 launches and continuously improving until the point where we’re the world’s leading provider of space launch,” Musk said.

Sunday’s launch was not the only space milestone in the last week. On Thursday China launched its third manned mission, Shenzhou 7, on a 68-hour mission that featured the first Chinese spacewalk. The launch, EVA, and landing all captured headlines around the world, and has generated far more attention than the SpaceX launch likely will.

In the long run, though, it may be the SpaceX launch that is more influential. China is following the same path forged nearly five decades ago by the United States and the former Soviet Union: a government-run human spaceflight program that is as much for national prestige as for anything else. Several other countries, including India, Europe, and Japan, may follow in the next decade and beyond. It’s a tried-and-true paradigm, but one that has done little to date to open space for new applications and new audiences.

SpaceX, and other NewSpace ventures like it, carry the promise of dramatically changing the space industry with low-cost orbital and suborbital launch options that open up new and potentially lucrative new markets. That promise, though, has remained just that—a promise, not a reality—since SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize four years ago. Sunday’s launch was perhaps the biggest milestone since then in demonstrating what NewSpace can offer.

However, many more milestones must follow for that promise to be realized, something that Musk acknowledged after the launch. “This is just the first step of many.”