Flight of the Falcon: Private Rocket Set for Late March
The first flight of the private Falcon 1, seen here in a static fire test of its Merlin 1 engine, is now slated for late March at the rocket's Kwajalein Atoll launch pad on the Pacific Ocean.
Credit: Thom Rogers/SpaceX.

Another spot on the calendar has been targeted for the maiden takeoff of the privately built Falcon 1 launch vehicle, designed and constructed by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of El Segundo, California.

"Looks like we are on for a March 20-25 launch window," said Elon Musk, SpaceX chairman and chief executive officer. "We are also going to do another static fire to check out the system about four days before launch," he told SPACE.com.

Next month's projected liftoff will take place from an equatorial launch site built by SpaceX at Kwajalein Atoll on the Pacific Ocean.

Cadet satellite

Falcon 1 is a two stage, liquid oxygen and rocket grade kerosene powered launch vehicle.

The rocket's main engine is called Merlin, with a SpaceX Kestrel engine powering the booster's second stage. Falcon's first stage is also rigged for a water landing under parachute, to be picked up by a ship in a process similar to recovery of the space shuttle solid rocket boosters.

The payload on the rocket at Kwajalein is the FalconSat-2, built by U.S. Air Force Academy cadets in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The $800,000 cube-shaped nano-satellite measures about 12.5 inches (32 centimeters) per side and weighs 43-pounds (19.5-kilograms).

FalconSat-2 is designed to gauge space plasma and is part of a program sponsored by the U.S. Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). FalconSAT-2 was originally slated for launch aboard a space shuttle in early 2003, with the Columbia disaster scrapping that plan.

"Gating items"

In a newly issued SpaceX update, Musk said that the tentative launch window for the maiden flight of Falcon 1 is March 20 through 25.  Early next month, the company will do a systems review of the booster with DARPA, the U.S. Air Force, and NASA.

Getting the rocket off the ground will depend on several "gating items", Musk added, such as receiving a shipment of liquid oxygen - LOX - from Hawaii and switching out the booster's second stage tank. 

"Obviously, long term operations on Kwajalein will require that we install a state-of-the-art, high reliability LOX plant on island," Musk said.

In the meantime, Musk noted, the Falcon 1 launch team will work though the booster's first flight with LOX shipments from Hawaii "and whatever output we can generate from the sad, old clunker of a LOX plant that we currently own."

Musk also said that his rocket team is replacing the launcher's second stage tank, following discovery of a small leak. "Fortunately, a Falcon second stage tank just barely fits through the door of a standard cargo airplane...so the flight is relatively inexpensive and readily available."

Fixing the leak in the tank being shipped back is not a huge task, Musk advised, but also not something easily done far away from the factory. Countdown procedures have been modified to prevent such leaks from developing in the future, he explained.

Launch debut, long in coming

Falcon-1's launch debut has been long in coming. The SpaceX booster's first flight has been delayed for some two years by a myriad of bureaucratic, technical and logistics issues after the rocket's unveiling in December 2003.

Musk said that he expects the second launch of Falcon 1 to take place from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California about three to four months after the maiden launch.

SpaceX was founded by Musk in June 2002 - the third company founded by the successful, deep-pocketed entrepreneur.

Previously, Musk co-founded and was the largest shareholder of PayPal?, the world's leading electronic payment system, which sold to online auction giant eBay? for $1.5 billion in 2002. In 1995, Musk co-founded Zip2 Corporation, which sold to Compaq Computer Corporation for over $300 million.