Elon Musk’s SpaceX, a private rocket launch company that successfully put its first rocket into orbit this past weekend, is now on track to service a large government entity, NASA:
With a successful Falcon 1 launch under their belt, SpaceX has set its sights on hauling cargo for NASA with the larger Falcon 9 rocket, transporting crews to the International Space Station in its Dragon capsule, and landing on the Moon with a modified Falcon 1 rocket.
The Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to be shipped to Cape Canaveral, Florida late this year to prep for its NASA cargo flights. Falcon 9 has nine Merlin rocket engines to Falcon 1’s one, and is capable of taking cargo, and eventually crew, to and from the International Space Station. The maiden voyage of the Falcon 9 is scheduled for the first quarter of 2009 from the larger launch pad SpaceX is currently refurbishing at the Cape. (Map of SpaceX’s Kwajalein and Cape launch sites are shown below.)
After Falcon 9’s first flight there are three commercial payloads and two NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation System demonstration flights scheduled for 2009. The first of these flights will simply fly cargo to orbit, do some maneuvering and then come home. The second cargo mission will demonstrate its ability to safely and accurately maneuver and execute close-proximity operations using the Falcon 9’s spent upper stage as a proxy for the International Space Station. The third demonstration flight, currently scheduled for 2010, will fly a full cargo delivery profile, including docking to the International Space Station.
If SpaceX meets all of these milestones they will receive their full $278 million award from NASA. To put that in perspective, NASA awarded a $3.9 billion cost-plus contract to Lockheed Martin to develop the pressurized Orion capsule that will carry the crew atop the Ares I rocket. NASA has already modified the contract to Lockheed to add in two additional abort tests and to push back the program two years. The modification alone cost them an additional $385 million, more than NASA will pay SpaceX for the Falcon 9 rocket and pressurized Dragon capsule should the flights prove successful. Quite a bargain.
Nobody knows for sure how significant SpaceX’s Falcon 1 launch was and how much it was needed.
But it’s all forward and upward from here, there’s no turning back.
The private space industry is born.