Space X makes it to space!

By Phil Plait | September 28, 2008 8:06 pm

Congratulations to the team at Space X! At 16:26 Pacific time today (Sunday, September 28, 2008), their Falcon 1 rocket achieved orbit around the Earth, the first time a privately funded company has done such a feat with a liquid fuel rocket.

Space X’s Falcon 1, Flight 4 rocket shortly before launchThis was their fourth attempt to get to orbit with the Falcon 1 rocket. The first three failed to make orbit for various reasons; each time the company analyzed the problem and was able to move on. This last time, they appeared to have gotten it right.

There was no scientific or commercial payload; instead, they launched what’s called a "mass simulator"; a hexagonal chunk of metal that simulates an actual payload. It didn’t deploy, but instead stayed inside the rocket’s second stage as it orbits the Earth.

As I write this there is no word on the Space X website about the orbital configuration (height above Earth and all that), but I’ll keep an eye open and report that when I find out.

Let me say, this is fantastic news! Once the Falcon 1 has a series of launches under its belt, Space X will start launching the Falcon 9, and then the fun really begins. It will be able to lift several tons to orbit, giving customers an alternative to government-funded launch agencies.

We still have a long way to go before there is cheap and easy access to space — and there are lots of other companies working on that, too — but it’s a step in the right direction.

Image of the Falcon 1 Flight 4 rocket preparing for launch courtesy Space X.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Space

Comments (46)

  1. Saw this on Digg. AWESOME news! My wife thought I was rather geeky considering how excited I got, but I have high hopes for this venture… Wonder if they have any thoughts about a manned program to take over for NASA once (I mean if) the Russians flake out on us.

  2. Ryan

    I like the term “Mass simulator”.

    And this is all terribly exciting.

  3. Huron

    Excellent news. Bring on Dragon and the Falcon 9!

  4. rjbrash
  5. What I like is the launch facility. A tropical island setting. The rocket surround by trees. It looks so Dr No. I love it.

    In comparison to the setting check out Baikonur…

  6. hooray… I had dinner last week in Denver with a fellow whose company is working on a payload that is (or might be) going up on SpaceX sometime in the future… fingers were crossed.

  7. Thanks for the link to the video dan2.

    Totally awesome. Lump in the throat stuff. Also good to hear what sounds like an Aussie voice on the video.

  8. Fantastic news! No disparaging words for scientists, but this is a triumph for the engineers!

    A priest, a doctor, and an engineer were waiting one morning for a particularly slow group of golfers.

    The engineer fumed, “What’s with those blokes? We must have been waiting for fifteen minutes!”

    The doctor chimed in, “I don’t know, but I’ve never seen such inept golf!”

    The priest said, “Here comes the greens keeper. Let’s have a word with him.” He said, “Hello, George! what’s wrong with that group ahead of us? They’re rather slow, aren’t they?”

    The greens keeper replied, “Oh, yes. That’s a group of blind firefighters. They lost their sight saving our clubhouse from a fire last year, so we always let them play for free anytime.” The group fell silent for a moment.

    The priest said, “That’s so sad. I think I will say a special prayer for them tonight.”

    The doctor said, “Good idea. I’m going to contact my ophthalmologist colleague and see if there’s anything he can do for them.”

    The engineer said, “Why can’t they play at night?”

    Congrats SpaceX!!

    Found the joke here:

  9. elgarak

    Woohoo! Go, SpaceX!

  10. It appears Space X have plans for a manned vehicle, Dragon. Do the naysayers on manned missions have an opinion on private manned space vehicles? Or are all the arguments previously mentioned only in relation to government sponorship?

  11. themadlolscientist


  12. kuhnigget

    I seem to have developed a bit of a mass simulator (two, actually) on my backside of late. Really need to get out more…

  13. Nygard

    Did it actually go into orbit? All the articles and press materials I’ve seen just said it reached orbital velocity. That leaves some ambiguity as to the overall trajectory.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled at this historic milestone! I just would like to know if they managed orbital insertion or if this is just about reaching sufficient velocity and altitude.

  14. Nygard, I’d say yes. I think if it has reached the right height with the right velocity it would be safe to say it has reached orbit. The question is now how elliptical the orbit is?

  15. phuul

    If you have the right velocity and the right altitude you are in orbit. Period. “Orbital Insertion” is generally only when a space craft has to slow itself down and go into an orbit around another moon and/or planet.

  16. IVAN3MAN

    Dr. Phil Plait:

    There was no scientific or commercial payload; instead, they launched what’s called a “mass simulator”; a hexagonal chunk of metal that simulates an actual payload.

    It would have been better if they had placed a “Sputnik” type payload with a simple “beep-beep-beep” transmitter on board, so that radio amateurs around the World can pick up the signal. Anyway, congratulations to all involved in the project.

  17. No doubt the payload fell into an LHC-generated black hole and will now terrorize the cosmos with Simulated Mass Destruction.

  18. Daniel

    YES YES YES!!!!!!! This is terrific news. NASA will soon have some competition and FINALLY must improve on its quality. However with the recent bailout…I can already see the launchpads, shuttles and ISS on ebay.

  19. Awesome!!! Congratulations!

  20. LukeL

    While I am very conservative this is an issue where I must say a legal, nationalized, monopoly might be needed. There are highly sensitive military satellites of many countries that orbit our earth, not to mention the commercial communication satellites. If we have private firms with no government oversight it could lead to a ton of issues. I am sure this issue has been addressed but if not we are taking a serious risk here.

    I hope this company has one hefty insurance policy.

  21. This is really exciting news! Truly a milestone in space travel and for society in general as it makes the dream of space travel accessible to many more people. Can’t wait to see the next developments.

  22. Daniel

    That is a good point. What if one of our world rivals wants to set up a corporation to get military contracts as a private space company (sound familiar? with the Navy AEGIS system?)…THATS a scary thought.

  23. Awesome, those guys in SpaceX are making progress pretty fast (I think it has been 6 years since they have actually been working on all of this).
    I watched it LIVE in the SpaceVidcast website, these guys re-broadcast all of these events and interact a lot with the viewers while the event is taking place :-)
    btw, you can watch their 40 mins high-quality video of the launch (starting at T -10:00) on their website 😉

  24. @LukeL and Daniel, I reckon there’d be plenty of government oversight. Space X would have to have received permission from dozens of agencies to get a rocket up. Why would a private company putting up satellites for rivals be any more scary than the rival doing it themselves?

    Also I noticed in Space X’s FAQ this little gem,
    “Falcon 9 Heavy will be capable of carrying up to 29,610 kg to LEO and up to 15,010 kg to GTO. Falcon 9 Heavy could have important implications for Mars exploration and even settlement.”

  25. Jeffersonian

    Indeed. History was made this week, what with this and China’s jaunt.

  26. Chip

    Viva Space X! 😀

  27. MattGS

    This is indeed fantastic news. Go privately funded space travel! Finally something that makes me feel like we reached the 21st century.

  28. Mark

    I for one welcome our new hexagonal metal overlords in space.

  29. Not to be too nit-picky, but a better post headline would be “SpaceX makes it to orbit!”. The last two launches technically made it to space (alt >100 km), but failed to achieve orbital velocity. Acquiring that velocity is the hardest part, which is why this beats Space Ship One and simply going into “space”.

    That said, this is fantastic news, big congratulations to SpaceX team. I hope this doesn’t end up as a lucky fluke and may the consequent launches all be successful and show this wasn’t a stroke of luck.

    In retrospect, it’s a real shame about Flight 3, this flight practically demonstrates flight 3 was perfectly capable of reaching orbit as well (no hardware faults or changes between 3 and 4).

  30. There is a nice video on their website that is similar to the YouTube video that has been linked in the comments, but it shows the cutoff of the second-stage engine. It’s glowing red-hot all the way to the end of the firing, but after the engine cuts, it almost instantly cools off. Pretty cool.

  31. Darrin

    Fantastic stuff! Congrats to the Space X team, this is quite an accomplishment!

  32. Spiv

    congratulations to the team at space-x! And for those who might not recognize it, making it to orbit is a much, much more difficult thing than skimming space like the x-prize setup. This is a huge achievement for a private space firm.

    Daniel, LukeL: This isn’t really competition for NASA at this point, but even so the mood around here (KSC) is just excited about the launch. It’s true that they have done this on a shoestring budget compared to us, and we hope to learn lessons from them wherever possible. As for government oversight or risk of them launching things that could be un-american, they are taking over one of the launch complexes here at Kennedy for some future launches. I don’t know if that means anyone will be really up in their business, but you can bet everyone around here will know what their payloads are.

    And as for worrying about crashing into other satellites, it’s pretty unlikely. There’s not much coordination outside of geo-sinc because, well, space is pretty big.

  33. Will

    When they get Dragon up, it’s first mission should be to go to ISS with a keg and a web-cam and ring the bell :)

  34. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Yay, who knew that 4th time can be the charm?!

    The question is now how elliptical the orbit is?

    According to their press material:

    Preliminary data indicates that Falcon 1 achieved an elliptical orbit of 500 km by 700 km, 9.2 degrees inclination—exactly as targeted.

    History was made this week, what with this and China’s jaunt.

    Actually, with the end of the first ATV mission today, IIRC chased by 2 science missions in planes to study atmospheric breakup, all 3 of the latest generation vehicles have made their mark the last week.

  35. madge

    Congratulations Space X! Awesome job!

  36. Kevin S.

    Sweet! I love the Space X endeavors! It means there’s hope yet for space :). And it seems to me that all this is happening at exactly the right time, what with the shuttle being retired and NASA still years away from launch of the Orion.

    So excited about this news!

  37. LukeL

    I understand the odds of it crashing into another satellite are fairly low or close zero. My issue is that rockets do explode and crash every now and then. There have been NASA rockets containing radioactive isotopes exploding in the lower atmosphere. If private companies aren’t carrying heft insurance policies we could have a major public safety issue at hand.

    Like I said, I am all for government competition, but when dealing with issue like this it is best to allow a government monopoly, or at least government over site.

  38. changcho

    Nice, but I have this nagging feeling that they’ll use it to launch (moslty) military paylods…

  39. John Baxter

    Luke, insurance doesn’t affect the public safety implications of a hypothetical launch accident. It does affect the way the aftermath plays out, however.

  40. “…they launched what’s called a “mass simulator”; a hexagonal chunk of metal that simulates an actual payload.”

    Wait, so they sent up a Companion Cube?????

  41. XMM_Spacon

    Hi all,

    regarding the orbital information Phil could not find, I found this in the launch notification send out by AGI:

    “The rocket initially reached an orbit stretching from a low point of 205 miles [330 km] to a high point of 404 miles [650 km]. The orbital inclination was 9.3 degrees.

    SpaceX released information before the launch indicating that the rocket would target an orbit with an apogee, or high point, of 426 miles [686 km]. But Musk said the rocket hit an orbit very close to prelaunch predictions.”

    As source of their information they state “Spacflight Now” giving the following link:


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