The Falcon flies on fourth try

After three unsuccessful attempts in 2006, 2007 and August 2008 respectively, the Space X Falcon 1 rocket finally succeeded in reaching orbit on its fourth try on Sunday, making it the first ground-launched orbital launch vehicle developed with private funding to do so. The success of the Falcon 1 has been hailed throughout the ‘New Space’ community as a major step towards affordable access to space for the private sector.

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Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 1 Flight 4 vehicle from Omelek Island in the Kwajalein Atoll, at 4:15 p.m. PDT / 23:15 UTC. (Source: SpaceX.com)

The partially reusable Falcon 1 is designed and manufactured by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk’s space-transportation startup, SpaceX. And although the Falcon 1 itself is capable of transferring payloads of up to 670 kg into orbit, it’s greatest importance lies perhaps in its role as a testbed for designs that will be reused in SpaceX’s much larger Falcon 9.

The Falcon 9, in its lightest version, will be capable of transferring no less than nearly 10,000 kg of payload into orbit and is being considered for NASA‘s COTS program for transporting cargo to and from the International Space Station when the Space Shuttle is decommissioned in a few years. With prices significantly lower than competing launch vehicles, the Falcon series of rockets also for the first time offers a whole new range of small businesses and organizations access to orbit.

One of these organizations is the non-profit foundation Team FREDNET which is putting together a mission for sending a robot rover to the surface of Moon in the hope of claiming the 20 million US dollar Google Lunar X Prize. According to plans released by the organization in July, Team FREDNET estimates that sending their spacecraft to the Moon on a Falcon 1 would cost around 5 million U.S. dollars. A relatively high price, which is in part due to Team FREDNET’s special requirements – not many spacefarers are going to the Earth’s distant and desolate natural satellite as Team FREDNET is.

Most scientific payloads headed into space are left by their launch vehicle in Low Earth Orbit (LEO, 160 km to 2000 km above the mean sea level of the Earth), some communications satellites are left in Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO, same altitude as LEO but at a higher velocity), and nearly all the remaining payloads are left somewhere in between. The only payloads to escape the Earth’s gravitational sphere of influence entirely are probes sent into interplanetary space by governmental agencies such as NASA and ESA. Therefore, most launch vehicles are designed for LEO or GTO trajectories, with the Falcon 1 falling into the former category.

If left in LEO by a rocket such as Falcon 1, Team FREDNET’s spacecraft would need to propel itself towards the Moon, which in turn would require it to carry much more fuel on-board: “From LEO, we will need a heavier spacecraft to get to lunar orbit, as compared to GTO – probably most of a Falcon 1 payload,” says Ryan Weed, team lead of Team FREDNET’s Propulsion Systems group. The added weight means that Team FREDNET would have to pay most or all of the launch themselves as it would leave little room for other customer’s payloads aboard the rocket.

However, the Falcon 1’s big brother may still be an option: “The Falcon 9 is enticing because it does lunar transfer orbits, with something like 2000 kg of payload,” says Weed. The greater lifting power of the EELV class Falcon 9 allows it to perform direct Trans Lunar Injection, eliminating the need for a heavy kick motor with fuel on the payload itself. Weed estimates that the total mass of Team FREDNET’s payload on a Falcon 9 would be less than 100 kg, or a twentieth of the Falcon 9’s total trans-lunar lifting capability. “And at 50 million US dollars per launch, one twentieth of that is looking cheaper than a full Falcon 1,” he says, and concludes: “In the end its all about the money.”

Another man keeping an eye on the launch business these years is Tom Hill of the Mars Society, an international space advocacy non-profit organization dedicated to encouraging the exploration and settlement of Mars. Hill recently had an experiment he had proposed, called TEMPO³, approved for funding by the Mars Society. TEMPO³ intends to show the feasibility of using tethers to generate artificial gravity in space, in the hope of convincing space agencies that the technology can be used to counter the negative health effects of weightlessness on long manned voyages in space to e.g. Mars.

The TEMPO³ experiment is to be launched as a CubeSat mission by the California Polytechnic State University, but planning has only just begun and as of yet no launch vehicles have been chosen for consideration. The rocket that has flown the most CubeSats so far is the Russian Dnepr, and although Tom Hill would not rule out SpaceX as a possible carrier, his team has not started any direct negotiations with the company either. The CubeSat project considers many launch providers of which SpaceX is just one.

“Directly, there’s no real impact to the TEMPO³ mission of Falcon 1’s launch success,” says Tom Hill. “Indirectly, however, there’s a huge boost for private space efforts. Elon Musk showing what a small company can do is great, and it will point out the fact that other groups, and not necessarily just government-run space agencies, can be active in space.”

Musk, who became a dotcom-multimillionaire through his sale of PayPal to eBay, founded SpaceX to fulfil childhood dreams of one day sending missions towards other planets and is not at all a stranger to the non-governmental movement to further human presence in space:

“Elon got an early introduction to space efforts through The Mars Society, and he’s been a general supporter as well as funding specific projects, so any success on Elon’s part has the potential of translating to future Mars Society success,” says Hill. “Elon has expressed an interest in using his Falcon 9 Heavy boosters and their progeny for Humans-to-Mars missions, which is incredibly exciting”.

AMSAT, an international non-profit organization dedicated to building and operating amateur radio satellites, is also assessing the capabilities of the new launch market entrant. On October 9, representatives of SpaceX and AMSAT-DL, the German chapter of the AMSAT organization, met in Marburg, Germany to discuss possibilities for cooperation. The AMSAT representatives, whose organization is currently developing a first-of-its-kind amateur mission to Mars named P5-A, were interested to learn details on Elon Musk’s own ideas and plans concerning the Red Planet:

“Bottom line is that SpaceX and AMSAT-DL share common philosophies regarding access to space,” says P5-A mission manager Achim Vollhardt. But Vollhardt echoes the sentiment of Ryan Weed and Tom Hill that, ultimately, it’s the best offer that wins: “In general, we only require a geostationary transfer orbit for any of our missions, so any commercial satellite launcher can serve our needs,” he says, and explains that reducing launch price is critical to minimizing overall mission costs.

The next Falcon 1 is set to launch in January 2009, with a payload from SpaceDev, another important space startup. The highly anticipated maiden flight of the Falcon 9 is also scheduled for launch sometime in the first quarter of 2009.

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