SpaceX Sets Launch Debut for Falcon 1 Rocket
SpaceX's first Falcon 1 rocket sits on its launch pad at Omelek Island on the Kwajalein Atoll, home of the Reagan Test Site, where it will launch its first payload FalconSat 2 for DARPA and the U.S. Air Force.
Credit: SpaceX.

The private launch firm SpaceX will loft its Falcon 1 rocket on Nov. 25, marking the booster's maiden flight and hopefully the first of many space shots to come, the company's chief said Friday.

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of the El Segundo, California-based SpaceX, said his firm's first Falcon 1 rocket will liftoff from its equatorial launch site at 4:00 p.m. EST (2100 GMT) on a mission to orbit a small U.S. Air Force Academy satellite.

"I actually don't feel nervous, I feel relief," Musk told reporters during a press conference. "No matter what happens next week, this is something that is the first stepping stone in reducing the cost of access to space."

SpaceX's Falcon 1 rocket carries a reusable first stage, the firm's homegrown Merlin engine and a price tag of about $6.7 million, SpaceX officials said.

The rocket's first flight will launch from the U.S. military's Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Test Site on Omelek Island near Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean's Marshall Islands - where it will be 9:00 a.m. local time when the countdown reaches zero - though future spaceflights will also be staged from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, they added.

"We feel at peace with ourselves in this launch because we've really done all we can," Musk said. "I think that I can say with confidence that we've left no stone unturned."

SpaceX is using its debut of the Falcon 1 rocket to launch FalconSat-2, a student-built satellite to measure space plasma's effect on global positioning system (GPS) satellites and other space-based communications systems, according to the U.S. Air Force Academy. The satellite is part of a program run by the U.S. Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA).

Long road to space

Musk, who also co-founded the electronic payment service PayPal, founded SpaceX - short for Space Exploration Technologies - in 2002 to offer low-cost commercial space launches. But the path to the launch pad has not always been smooth.

The need for additional checks of the Falcon 1's Merlin engine prompted a delay from an Oct. 31 target earlier this year. The October launch target itself was a fallback date for a planned Sept. 30 space shot, which was rescheduled after a problem cropped up during a Merlin engine test at SpaceX's test facility in central Texas.

"We actually delayed the launch a few times to really put extra care into the engines," Musk said.

SpaceX had also hoped to make its first Falcon 1 launch from its Vandenberg launch site, but encountered delays while waiting for a Titan 4 rocket to deliver a classified National Reconnaissance Office payload into orbit. The firm also filed a lawsuit against Boeing and Lockheed Martin accusing the aerospace companies of violating antitrust laws for U.S. government launch services.

"Really, all we're asking for in that lawsuit is the ability to compete on a level playing field," Musk said.

Opening the launch door

SpaceX's Falcon 1 rocket has a four-hour window to launch FalconSat-2 into an orbit that is expected to reach an altitude of about 310 miles (500 kilometers) at its highest point.

A staff of about 25 flight controllers and engineers will watch the space shot from a control center on Kwajalein Atoll, though the rocket's launch pad sits on Omelek Island, Musk said.

If successful, the space shot will be followed in March 2006 with the second Falcon 1 launch carrying the TacSat-1 satellite built by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory for the Pentagon's Office of Force Transformation.

SpaceX has sold a total of six Falcon 1 launches to date and plans to include a previously-flown first stage on firm's fourth space shot, Musk said. The second Falcon 1 rocket should be completed within one month's time, with a third to follow in 2006, he added.

Aiming higher

While orbiting small payloads appears profitable - the U.S. Air Force awarded SpaceX an up-to-$100 million contract to launch satellites under its DARPA/FALCON program - Musk and his firm have larger goals in mind.

Designs for a fully reusable Falcon 9 rocket are currently underway to launch payloads of 21,000 pounds (9,500 kilograms) into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in a medium configuration, and up to 55,000 pounds (25,000 kilograms) to LEO in its heavy configuration, SpaceX officials have said. An intermediate rocket - the Falcon 5 - is slated to make its first flight by 2007, they added.

Musk said SpaceX also expects to unveil plans for a rocket engine he dubbed "the largest one in the world" to in February 2006, as well as compete for NASA's commercial cargo contracts - and potentially crew flights as well - to resupply the International Space Station (ISS).

"Our funding needed to complete the man-rated Falcon 9 is about $100 million," Musk said, adding that he has financed about 98 percent of SpaceX's costs to date with $100 million of his money. "My interest is in helping others get into space and helping us become a space faring civilization."

Musk said he intends to begin searching for investors to join SpaceX early next year, but is fully prepared to cover the Falcon 9 costs himself, if needed.

The U.S. government has nabbed launch services aboard the first Falcon 9 flight set for 2007. A second Falcon 9 flight is slated for 2008 for Las Vegas, Nevada's Bigelow Aerospace, which is developing inflatable orbital modules to support a private space station, SpaceX officials said.

Musk said he also hopes to launch Falcon family rockets from Cape Canaveral, Florida in the future, and believes that it is essential to push humans further into space.

"Becoming a space faring civilization or a multi-planet species...it may well be the hardest thing that humanity ever does," Musk said. "Life has a duty to extend itself and we, as life's representatives, should do so."