SpaceX Private Rocket Shifts to Island Launch
The Falcon 1 rocket, developed by SpaceX, fires its first stage engine during a test at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Credit: SpaceX.

LOGAN, Utah--Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) of El Segundo, California is putting in place private rocket facilities at a Kwajalein Atoll launch area in the western Pacific Ocean.

Yet the going has been tough for the private start-up, bankrolled by Elon Musk, chairman and chief executive officer of SpaceX.

First, the group's hoped for premier takeoff of the Falcon 1 booster at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California was stymied by an on-going delay of a Titan 4 rocket launch carrying a classified payload. That booster--the last to fly from Vandenberg--remains ground-bound and won't be airborne until this October, if then.

The Falcon 1 at Vandenberg was being readied to loft TacSat-1, a satellite built and integrated by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory for the Pentagon's Office of Force Transformation.

But a far more vexing issue now faces SpaceX.

After spending an estimated $7 million on its Vandenberg Air Force Base facilities, the private rocket company is being told to get out of its Complex 3 West launch site.

"It is just, I think, a travesty," Musk told SPACE.com in an interview here at the 19th Annual Conference on Small Satellites, sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Utah State University.

Fundamentally unfair

The squeeze play stems from Lockheed Martin moving back to use a Complex 3 East site at Vandenberg for Atlas 5 launches.

"It's like you build your house...somebody else builds a house next to you and tells you to get out of your house. Like, what the hell...after we've made that big investment and everything. We're going to fight that issue because it is just fundamentally unfair," Musk said.

The Air Force said it has discussed moving SpaceX across the range to Space Launch Complex-4 but has made no decision to evict the company from its current location.

"We have had discussions with SpaceX about the possibility of moving to SLC 4 to better serve and protect all our launch partners, but no decisions have been made," Air Force Maj. Todd Fleming, a Vandenberg spokesman, said in a written statement Aug 11. "We look forward to building strong relationships with Space X, as well as other launch providers, as we work together to provide responsive launch capabilities for our nation. Space X already conducted a successful test from Vandenberg, and we look forward to their future launches from here."

Musk said the U.S. Air Force has got to let the company launch from Vandenberg. "There's no two ways about it as far as I'm concerned...or pay for us to move to another pad."

SpaceX signed an agreement with the U.S. Air Force to use Complex 3 West, with the company then proceeding to make investments in the site, as well as pay for environmental assessments in order for their Falcon 1 rocket to roar skyward from the spot.

"So they just can't render that investment zero," Musk said. "They are saying that Atlas 5 is more important than Falcon 1, which is true from a national security standpoint," he added.

"But the fact of the matter is...that doesn't mean they can completely shaft us," Musk said.

Kwajalein liftoff date

Meanwhile, SpaceX is readying its new launch site at Kwajalein. That location had been part of the overall company plans to orbit payloads from there as well as from California and Florida.

A projected Kwajalein liftoff date for the firm's two-stage Falcon 1 rocket on its maiden flight is late September.

The customer for this mission is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The rocket's payload is a FalconSat-2, part of the U.S. Air Force Academy's satellite program. Once in orbit, FalconSat-2 is designed to measure space plasma phenomena, which can adversely affect space-based civil and military telecommunications.

"Our nominal launch date is September 30, but given that this is a new launch vehicle from a new pad, some delays are likely," Musk said.

Now en route by barge to Kwajalein is the Falcon 1 first stage, with the second stage to arrive by air transportation. Work teams are building up the remote island-based launch pad.

"If everything works well and we're all good to go, it passes all the tests, and we are confident of success, we will launch on September 30," said Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX's Vice President of Avionics. "If there's anything not sure about it, we'll keep testing. Basically, this is it. We've got to get this right," he told SPACE.com here at the small satellite meeting.

"It looks like a simple rocket," Koenigsmann said, but Falcon 1 is a very complex system. At present, there are no plans to static fire the rocket prior to launch, he said, as had previously been done at the Vandenberg launch site.

Many cooks in the kitchen

There are advantages and disadvantages regarding launch operations from Kwajalein, Musk said.

First of all, there are no population centers nearby, making range safety easier and, hopefully, a little cheaper, Musk said. Also, any orbit is achievable from Kwajalein, with being close to the equator an advantage too, he said.

The logistics of transporting equipment and hardware to the island launch locale is the biggest issue the firm is now dealing with in readying the Kwajalein site for Falcon 1 operations.

A downside is high corrosion at Kwajalein, Musk pointed out. "I don't think there's a place in the world with more corrosion. It's the perfect environment of right temperature, humidity and salt spray," he said, with conditions being combated in ways similar to precautions taken with Florida-based rocket infrastructure.

Contrasted to Vandenberg, Musk said that the Kwajalein work is being done to satisfy one entity, the Environmental Protection Agency. In California, multiple federal agencies had to be engaged, along with state and county entities.

"Although, ultimately, we do satisfy all of them, it just takes a lot of time when there are so many cooks in the kitchen," Musk explained.

Customers like what they see

Musk said that SpaceX has garnered a trio of new launch contracts, from the Swedish Space Corporation, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd (MDA) of Canada, as well as a commitment to use Falcon 1 by an unspecified U.S. company, with details to follow perhaps in the next week.

Although the Falcon 1 has yet to fly, Musk said the customers now signing up for Falcon 1 "like what they see."

Musk said that he could financially support early failure of the booster.

"If we have three consecutive failures...it's not clear to me that we know what we're doing and maybe we should go out of business," Musk said.

To date, total investment by Musk in SpaceX activities is below $100 million. "Basically, what I'd like to do, after first launch, is look at raising some external funding," he said.

In earlier entrepreneurial efforts, Musk co-founded PayPal, a leading electronic payment system, serving as the company's chairman and CEO. He was the largest shareholder until the company was acquired by eBay for $1.5 billion in October 2002.

Onward to Mars

Looking to the future, Musk said that the larger Falcon 5 launcher, a human-rated booster, along with a super-heavy lift rocket are all part of the SpaceX plan.

In the next few weeks, Musk said, plans beyond Falcon 5 are to be announced, "and some of them are going to be some pretty significant announcements...it's going to make a big splash."

Musk said the reason he founded SpaceX was to help humanity become a spacefaring civilization. While he would be happy to see his launch services used for exploration of the Moon, he said more distant Mars is the place to build and sustain another civilization.

"I'm less interested in the Moon," Musk said. "I think we saw that movie in the 1960s...it's a 60's re-run. A remake is never as good as the original."

The primary objective, Musk said, should be establishing a self-sustaining civilization on Mars. "At that point we become a multi-planet species and all sorts of things are possible. So my goal with SpaceX is to help make that happen," he added.

"Falcon 1 is just our test vehicle...our first foray. It's not the end game. It is the beginning of the beginning," Musk concluded.