SpaceX's Falcon 9: Rocket for the Dragon
The Falcon 9 rocket is the vehicle that brings Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX)'s Dragon spacecraft into space. Towering 227 feet tall, the rocket generally hefts up to 29,000 pounds (13,150 kilograms) of cargo into low-Earth orbit. In October 2012, Falcon 9 safely lifted the Dragon spacecraft, the first private spacecraft to visit the International Space Station.
SpaceX views Falcon 9 as a stepping stone to an even heavier-lift rocket, called the Falcon Heavy. Still under development, this rocket is expected to send up to 117,000 pounds (53,000 kg) of cargo into space. This is about twice the weight the space shuttle used to be able to bring into space.
Funding the fire
SpaceX first trumpeted the Falcon 9's existence in a press release in 2005. Then priced at up to $35 million per flight (today it's $54 million), the rocket was developed in response to customer demand, the company said.
At the time, SpaceX was developing the lighter Falcon 1 rocket, and planned to gradually increase capabilities with an "intermediate class" Falcon 5 launcher.
"However, in response to customer requirements for low-cost enhanced launch capability, SpaceX accelerated development of an [expendable launch]-class vehicle, upgrading Falcon 5 to Falcon 9," the firm stated.
According to SpaceX, it cost over $300 million to develop the vehicle "from a blank sheet to first launch in four and half years."
The company was a winner of one of NASA's sought-after commercial orbital transportation services contracts, which was worth up to $278 million for SpaceX provided it met all its milestones.
Falcon 9's primary structure was finished in April 2007, and the first multiple engine firings took place in January 2008.
SpaceX spent the year testing the engines, culminating in a "full mission-length firing" in November of that year. In an update to its followers, the California-based company touted the rocket's ability to compensate for failed engines in flight – a selling point to customers.
"The test firing validated the design of SpaceX's use of nine engines on the first stage, as well as the ability to shut down engines without affecting the functioning of the remaining engines," SpaceX wrote in November 2008.
"This demonstrates the ability of Falcon 9 to lose engines in flight and still complete its mission successfully, much as a commercial airliner is designed to be safe in the event of an engine loss. Like an airliner, the Falcon 9 engines are enclosed in a protective sheath that ensures a fire or destructive loss of an engine doesn't affect the rest of the vehicle."
The rocket certainly had NASA's attention. In December, NASA awarded a cargo resupply services contract to SpaceX for a minimum of $1.6 billion. If more missions to the ISS were ordered, the deal could go as high as $3.1 billion.
On Jan. 12, 2009, the Falcon 9 rocket rose to a vertical position at Cape Canaveral. It would be several months before the rocket soared into space, but SpaceX said the configuration was necessary to test all the systems in the next year.
SpaceX hoped to send the rocket up in 2009, but the actual launch date was June 7, 2010. The rocket passed all of the expected milestones, but encountered an unexpected roll during launch.
"There's a little bit of a swirl from the exhaust of the engines, and then all of the exhaust from the gas generators that spin the turbopumps is angled a little bit, so that just puts a twist right at the start of liftoff," Ken Bowersox, SpaceX's vice-president of safety and mission assurance, told This Week in Space shortly after the launch.
Because the Dragon spacecraft was still under development, the rocket carried a dummy payload into space. Falcon 9 finally fuelled the Dragon's fire on Dec. 8, 2010. It was the first time a rocket had carried a private unmanned space capsule into space, which then returned safely to Earth.
While Falcon 9 successfully brought Dragon to space several times, the rocket has experienced some growing pains. An engine problem forced an abort before Dragon soared to the ISS for a test flight in May 2012.
An engine problem also marred Dragon's first official cargo run to the station five months later. Dragon arrived safely at its destination, but a satellite on board did not. Orbcomm's prototype satellite messaging service satellite fell out of orbit early, just five days after launch. However, the New Jersey company said it had received some test data during the satellite's brief stay in space.
With Falcon 9 now responsible for supplying the space station, SpaceX has a bigger goal in mind for its rocket: rating it for human missions. The company received $75 million from NASA in April 2011 to assist with Dragon's development. The first flights could happen as early as 2015.
SpaceX also wants to use its experience with Falcon 9 to develop an even heavier-lift rocket: the Falcon Heavy. Launch prices from Cape Canaveral are advertised as between $83 million and $128 million. Falcon Heavy is expected to launch in 2013.
In 2011, the company stated it hoped to use Falcon Heavy to break into the defense market, then dominated by United Launch Alliance. By late 2012, SpaceX had its first Air Force defense contract in hand to launch two Falcon rockets bearing satellites in 2014 and 2015.
“These are difficult fiscal times for our federal government and the Falcon vehicles can save the Department of Defense almost $2 billion per year in launch costs, while increasing reliability and capability,” stated SpaceX founder Elon Musk in 2011.
“This presents a great opportunity for the DoD to avoid canceling other programs and minimize reductions in personnel as budgets contract.”
— Elizabeth Howell, SPACE.com Contributor