SpaceX's first Falcon 1 rocket launches on its ill-fated first flight on March 24, 2006.
Credit: Thom Rogers/SpaceX.
LOGAN, Utah -- Unshaken by a launch failure of its Falcon 1, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is pressing forward on a return-to-flight of its privately-built booster.
Elon Musk, chairman and chief executive officer of El Segundo, California-based SpaceX said the maiden liftoff earlier this year and subsequent loss of Falcon 1 has led to a shakeout of the vehicle prior to its next flight.
Launch date for the booster's takeoff - carrying two NASA test hardware payloads - is targeted for November from SpaceX's Pacific Ocean island launch facility in the Kwajalein Atoll.
However, that date could slip into December, Musk told SPACE.com in an exclusive interview at the 20th Annual Conference on Small Satellites held here at Utah State University.
"November is the plan," Musk said. "Current expectations are that the launch will occur in November...although if I was a betting man, we'd start doing our first test firings in November and launch in December."
Musk pointed out that SpaceX rocketeers have massively upgraded the rocket's health monitoring system - software that verifies the booster's condition leading up to engine ignition and release. He said he expected false-positive indications and aborts to occur in shaking out the system, leading to the booster launch in December.
The next Falcon 1 rocket will carry two NASA test articles: a low-cost Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System transmitter and an autonomous range destruct system package. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is the primary launch customer, Musk said, with the NASA payloads chosen by DARPA.
Rest in pieces
In focusing on the March 24 failure of Falcon 1 on its first trial flight, Musk recounted the experience.
"We initially thought there might have been a [launch] pad processing error," Musk said.
Later investigation of the failure pointed to a small aluminum nut designed to hold a fuel pipe fitting in place had failed due to stress erosion cracking. That led to a kerosene leak causing the Falcon 1's main engine to catch fire shortly after liftoff, with the vehicle failing shortly thereafter.
Recovered rocket debris helped to sort things out, Musk said. The rocket landed on an island reef, coming to rest in pieces not far from the launch pad in about four feet of water.
"Almost no rocket debris was on the island except the satellite," Musk said. The small experimental spacecraft called FalconSat-2 was crafted by cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Tossed free of the failed rocket, it slammed through the roof of an unoccupied storage shed on the island, crashing next to the shipping container used to transport it to Kwajalein.
Musk said that the booster's premier flight "was about the rocket not the satellite." DARPA was reasonably happy, he added, with the outcome of the flight. "They're not na?ve...they weren't expecting things to go perfectly. They thought that something would go wrong."
What DARPA was evaluating, Musk said, is did the rocket demonstrate responsive launch and did SpaceX obtain a lot of launch data.
"And the answer to both of those is yes," Musk added. "As a result, after first launch, they were actually reasonably happy and bought launch two. They considered the first launch to be a success on those criteria and I agree with them. We demonstrated a very quick launch and we got a lot of good data on the vehicle. It wasn't as successful as we would have liked but on the criteria that they had for responsive launch demonstration it was a success."
The Falcon 1's maiden blastoff accomplished 30 seconds of powered flight, prior to loss of the launcher.
Musk pointed out that the flight did successfully showcase the launch pad hold down system, the rocket's guidance and navigation equipment, and the booster's engine and thrust vector control, among other items.
"We have perfect telemetry," Musk continued, "all the way down to the damn thing hitting the reef."
Still, there are other aspects of the rocket that have not seen an in-flight shakeout.
"Without doubt, it would have been much better to have at least gotten to 2nd stage ignition. That would have proven out the separation...proven out 2nd stage ignition. It would have been nice to have gotten that far," Musk said.
Also to fly skyward from the SpaceX Kwajalein launch area is the company's more powerful Falcon 9, now under production, with three already sold, Musk said.
The next big event for Falcon 9 is completion of the booster's large first stage tank, expected to be achieved in the next two to three months. The tooling to build the launcher is on track as is a thrust frame for handling the rocket's cluster of engines.
Regarding setting up his rocket facilities on Kwajalein, Musk said, while initially difficult to create a capability there, things have smoothed out.
As for overall cost spent to date on Kwajalein, "I shudder to think," Musk said - noting it's a figure presently somewhere on the order of $10 million. A roughly equal amount has been spent on preparing a SpaceX launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
"Kwajalein is working out well...we're pretty well dialed in there," Musk said.
As for the firm's Vandenberg launch site, SpaceX has been advised that they can launch from their own site once they have had a successful flight from somewhere else.
There has been pressure placed on the company's use of its own pad due to a neighboring Lockheed Martin Atlas 5 launch complex. "Every time they talk to me it gets more valuable...a couple of hundred million dollars every time we talk. The last I heard was about $600 million dollars...some crazy number," Musk said.
"We can launch from another launch pad at Vandenberg without having a successful launch somewhere else," Musk explained. But doing so would entail another round of construction costs, he said, and paying for associated environmental impact studies that are "outrageously difficult."
Musk said that his personal investment in SpaceX to date is slightly over a $100 million.
"We'll go public at some point and I think the evaluation will be good...but no rush to go public or anything. We'll probably bring in some external funding next year," Musk said, "but we'll see...it may not be necessary."
For customers out there launching on SpaceX rockets down the road, "there should be no doubt whatsoever that we will persevere and we'll be there to launch their satellite," Musk emphasized. "We're on track to be cash flow positive this year. I think that's pretty good for a company in its fourth year of operation."
At week's end, SpaceX will find out from NASA if they have been selected as a player in the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. NASA plans to spend about $500 million on the COTS over the next five years, with private firms offering commercial cargo and crew services to the International Space Station (ISS).
COTS is viewed by Musk as one of the highest value-for-money programs that NASA has ever done. "That's my prediction for it...this will be some of the smartest money that NASA has ever spent."