Falcon 1 launch a success!

By Phil Plait | July 15, 2009 1:00 pm

If you weren’t sure before, SpaceX has announced that the Falcon 1 launch on Monday was a success, delivering the Malaysian satellite RazakSAT into a low-Earth orbit:

Preliminary data indicates that the RazakSAT, equipped with a high resolution Medium-Sized Aperture Camera (MAC), achieved the intended Near-Equatorial Low Earth Orbit (NEqO) at 685 km altitude and a 9 degree inclination. The payload is expected to provide high resolution images of Malaysia that can be applied to land management, resource development and conservation, forestry and fish migration.

Very cool! I’m glad to see them doing so well. They have a video of the launch online, which is absolutely worth a few minutes of your time. My favorite part is how you can see the Kestrel second stage engine nozzle get red hot; it’s designed to cool off radiatively — that is, literally glow with heat — and that is very evident in the video.

SpaceX launch of the Falcon 1 with RazakSAT
Space X launch of the Falcon-1 rocket. Courtesy SpaceX.

SpaceX is supposed to launch their much larger and more capable Falcon 9 later this year, the start of a series of tests to get the rocket ready to take humans into space. I’m hoping they can begin doing this around the time the Space Shuttle is retired. NASA screwed up bigtime here, allowing a four to five year gap in their ability to put people in space, and they’ll have to rely on others to do it for them in the meantime. Will SpaceX be up to the task?


Comments (39)

  1. Cool! How hot does the nozzle get, and how close to melting is it? A bit simpler than the shuttle’s method of running liquid hydrogen through them on the way to being ignited.

  2. $40 million per launch is the goal SpaceX is shooting for, Ken

  3. Charles Boyer

    NASA didn’t screw up, Phil. Congress did, because NASA began talking about Shuttle replacements over 14 years ago. They never got the money to do anything back then.

  4. Jim

    I saw this yesterday via Cosmic Variance. Very very cool stuff. I am super stoked to see the private space industry making successful advances like this. I imagine the future of space development will be a sort of stepwise function — right now we have entrepreneurs taking a risk on starting launch companies, and once that industry becomes mature, the next generation of them will be taking a risk on building space stations… then Moon bases… then trips to the outer planets.

  5. addams013

    Phil: NASA screwed up bigtime here

    Well, to be fair, it’s not the first time. There was a nearly six-year gap between ASTP and STS-1. And let’s not forget the gaps for several years after accidents (Apollo 1, STS-51L, and STS-107).

    The fact is that getting into space is hard. It’s not something we do with clockwork regularity. Which, of course, is why SpaceX deserves so much praise for Getting It Right. :) (It’s also the case that NASA is terribly underfunded if one wants to do space the way it should be done, and NASA shouldn’t be held to blame for that. But that’s a rant waiting to happen.)

  6. Ad Hominid

    Several years ago, when NASA announced their Aries/Orion system, I predicted that it would be overtaken by events before it could launch.

    At the time, this seemed a little optimistic but the continued success of various non-governmental space developments makes it seem more and more likely. For example, Bigelow Aerospace’s plan for an orbital hotel seemed like a madcap fantasy when first announced. Now, though, Bigelow has found some real answers and has actually launched a couple of test modules into orbit. We all know about Virgin Galactic and its plan to use sub-orbital sight-seeing to raise capital for more ambitious developments. There are many others as well, many of them making progress that would have been the stuff of dreams or scam artists not too many years ago.

    Any one of these companies could still fall flat on its face but the overall impetus is unstoppable.

    It’s interesting that SpaceX founder Elon Musk originally wanted to build a kind of Martian greenhouse, found the launch costs daunting, and decided instead to build a more economical launch system. He and his team have reached a crucial milestone with this launch and their ultimate goals are within reach.
    When the government space program started in the 1950s, the logical thing would have been to put the available funds into building as economical a launch system as possible; that is, build the horse before the cart. This was by no means impossible given the technology of the time but many other projects, including Apollo itself, would have to have been delayed, probably well into the 1970s.
    Global politics intervened, however, and all available funds went to achieving the most spectacular feats possible as soon as possible, with money literally no object. Apollo was a monumental feat of technology, courage, and organization but we are far into the twenty-first century now and “cost no object” is not the way to go in the future.

  7. Not that NASA is totally blameless, but I have to agree with Charles Boyer. There are no lobbyists with open checkbooks in orbit, so Congress regularly ignores NASA.

    Could be worse though – at least Proxmire is gone.

  8. Charles Boyer

    @Rooker, I’m not trying to say that NASA is completely blameless, and I agree with your post 100%.

    There should be NO spacefllight gaps. For example, the one that addams013 recollects would have been filled quite easily by Saturn 1B/Apollo CSM craft, we simply chose not to fly them, and not only that, lay off the workforce that could build it, assemble it and launch it. The story of throwing away the Saturn blueprints is 100% myth, but what it is completely true is that the tools and factory lines needed to manufacture the parts were scrapped along with the vast knowledge and experience of those who put them together.

    If you had a completely operational Saturn V in a warehouse, it would not be flyable for at least five years — assuming you had trained astronauts, because even the simulators have been in museums or trash heaps for 30 years now.

    As for Ares/Constellation, or whatever is chosen to succeed STS, there’s no real technical reason to not use the Shuttle until the next system is ready. Yes, it is a flying compromise, yes, it is not the optimal system and yes, another accident presumably could happen. But the truth is the darned thing works, has carried more men and materiale to and from space than any other launch system ever invented (Soyuz included) and that there is no reason to put the orbiters in museums until the next generation is ready.

  9. Jim

    NASA’s oversight might be a blessing in disguise. People will become more comfortable with the idea of commercial interests launching into orbit, which could be a huge step in humanities exploration of space.

  10. Fantastic footage. I’ll never get tired of watching the earth get smaller and smaller in the view of the rocket-mounted cameras.

  11. Charles Boyer

    Meanwhile, down here in Florida:

    “Weather may go down to the wire again for today’s 6:03 p.m. shuttle launch.

    “Only one weather category is “red”: anvil clouds too close to Kennedy Space Center, which are expected to dissipate.

    “Minutes ago, four weather criteria were “no-go,” including lightning and cumulus clouds.”

    The fuel cell issue has been cleared and it looks like Endeavour is ready to leave the surly bonds of Earth in about 90 minutes.

  12. Jared K

    Regarding Phil’s hope about being ready by the time the shuttle is retired, the answer is “no.” Elon Musk’s estimate of when the Dragon capsule will be fully certified and tested for human flight is in late 2011, and as someone who’s watched Tesla and SpaceX press releases for some time now, I can almost promise that this goalpost is going to shift. Unless the Shuttle keeps flying (at great cost and risk), there’s still going to be a gap. Best of luck and congratulations to SpaceX, though, for this significant step.

  13. John Powell

    NASA made a bad choice with it’s first STS follow up system, the VentureStar. I wish they had picked the DC-X.


  14. Mark

    Interesting… It seems that in the vacuum (or near vacuum) of space, radiative cooling wouldn’t be very effective. I thought that’s why (contrary to popular belief) a human wouldn’t immediately freeze to death if exposed to the vacuum of space. Despite the extremely cold temperatures, there’s no air to pull heat away from the body. Am I wrong about that, or is there still enough atmosphere at that altitude to cool the nozzle effectively?

  15. Mchl

    You do not necessarily need air to cool radiatively cooled objects (though it halps a lot for sure). Quite a lot of energy is carried away by IR radiation itslef.

  16. armillary

    Go Endeavour!

    Thanks, Charles – this was the first time I caught a launch live on NASA TV. Looks like it’s going splendidly – not even a minor glitch.

  17. justcorbly

    @ Jim, #11: >>NASA’s oversight might be a blessing in disguise. People will become more comfortable with the idea of commercial interests launching into orbit…

    The private sector will not fly manned missions during the interval between the Shuttle’s retirement and the debut of Ares/Constellation/whatever. The private sector has been launching satellites for years and hardly anyone knows it. SpaceX is innovative in that they are using a launch vehicle of their own design and construction. Again, no one but space geeks knows SpaceX exists.

  18. gss_000

    Phil, I’m going to also have to join in the criticism of your mistaken impression. NASA did not make the gap because it does not make policy. Your statement just spreads a false meme that it, and not Congress and the President, is responsible for the gap in the first place. Criticism of how that policy is implemented, like in this case if turns out the gap is lengthened by several years because of NASA’s decisions, that’s fair. But blaming them in the first place is just encouraging a wrong idea.

    In general, though, I’m surprised NASA hasn’t been given at least a little credit for helping SpaceX get to this point. Remember, this is there fifth launch, with three previous ending in failure. After the third failure in a row, a lot of people continued to have confidence in the company because of NASA’s continued investment through COTS. This launch is still a very cool thing and I hope it leads to everything Musk says it will, but we’ll just see how much is reality and how much is hype.

    @Charles Boyer
    “As for Ares/Constellation, or whatever is chosen to succeed STS, there’s no real technical reason to not use the Shuttle until the next system is ready.”

    Maybe, although the Columbia accident review board specifically recommended retiring the shuttle sooner rather than later. I could see the furor if there was an accident and NASA did not follow this advice.

  19. khms


    You do not necessarily need air to cool radiatively cooled objects (though it halps a lot for ‘sure).

    In fact, if you cool them with air, they’re convectively cooled, not radiatively. And radiative cooling certainly does work better in vacuum (where it doesn’t heat up material directly next to the surface to cool which then radiates right back), whereas convective cooling obviously works better with air or even water, and doesn’t work at all with vacuum.

  20. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Maybe it’s just me, but I get this launch as crucial. It was the first commercial success, and frees up resources for the Falcon-9 work this year.

    Let’s hope for the success of Falcon-9 as well, since the next year will see the development and launch of the twice LEO capable 1e AFAIU Space-X plans. This variant seems to bridge the commercial gap left by taking the Falcon-5 out of the series of lifters.

    the next generation of them will be taking a risk on building space stations…

    Actually Bigelow is testing prototypes as we type, see comment #8. Seems people have taken the concept of staggered projects and applied it on tech development at large.

    then Moon bases… then trips to the outer planets.

    I’m sure it has been noted before, but I just realized the other day that the 2-3 generation gap between 1911 South Pole exploration and 1956 Antarctic base/science colonization is akin to the 2-3 gen gap between 1969 Moon exploration and ~ 1920 projected base/science colonization. While the gap in between is just about the wait for the required first exploration technology (i.e. rockets).

    Perhaps there is a certain pace to targeting exploration and maturing society and colonization technology. Potentially what was the hazardous goal for one generation becomes a mature goal for the next and finally a place to live in for grandchildren. (I do believe there are permanent ‘visitors’ aka settlers @ Antarctic.) While they now have to, and do, set new hazardous goals.

    I dunno how to test that, but I do wish we don’t have to wait another 2-3 gen between returning to the Moon and exploring and, if necessary, diverting NEOs. Or Mars, for that matter, albeit I guess from the above if the immediate interest isn’t in place in the general public it could really take that long for a hard target.

    Ah well, at least we will have robots.

  21. ethanol

    Mark said:

    It seems that in the vacuum (or near vacuum) of space, radiative cooling wouldn’t be very effective

    You are thinking or convective cooling. Radiative cooling works entirely by infrared emission. No it wouldn’t be very effective at cooling an object at body temperature but at 800 or 900C it is. I noticed the mention of “ablative cooling” on their website. Did the Saturn V use ablative cooling? I’ve always wondered why on launch the first several feet of fire leaving the nozzles was always shrouded in black.

  22. Stone Age Scientist

    When I learned that the Falcon 1 launch site is located in an atoll (Kwajalein Atoll), I thought, “Wow, it’s like Thunderbirds come true.” Another one that came to me was that Japanese island in Contact (the island where the second machine was built).

    Hmmm, I thought these things only happen in movies.

  23. MadScientist

    I’m betting on the Russians providing all the human transport. There’s just such an awful lot to do to qualify spacecraft for humans. ESA (or at least EADS) has been talking about certifying the class type of Jules Verne for humans and they might actually be able to do this in time to take over from the shuttle (which means I lose on betting on the Russians) – but of course they will use EU rockets. I have no confidence in the US crew transport ability in the next 5 years. Fortunately we know at least the Russians have a working system and if the EU gets the work done on the Jules Verne class of vehicle there will be a very large crew transport vehicle available.

    @Mark: radiative cooling is the most effective sensible means of cooling in space. Things can get extremely cold and very fast (if you build them right). Unfortunately it’s not easy to maintain the extremely low temperatures needed by some sensors so there are instruments with cryogens on board, but even in those cases radiative cooling is used to help minimize the loss of cryogen.

    Oh, just one comment about “private companies” and rockets: *ALL* US rockets are built by private companies – Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, etc. So the “private companies vs. NASA” thing is a bit weird. The only distinction I see is between predominantly government funded projects and predominantly privately funded projects, and even that is a superficial distinction.

  24. Christina Viering

    Very cool pic!

  25. Stone Age Scientist

    justcorbly @ #19,

    Again, no one but space geeks knows SpaceX exists.

    And by the looks of it, governments do, too.

  26. Brian Fane

    One thing that I’ve noticed on the last to Falcon 1 flights is how the vehicle pitches up around the time of the main engine cut-off, then even more when the first stage separates. It pitches back down when the second stage engine lights off. It’s always a little unnerving, especially being used to boosters like the Delta or Atlas, that seem to be pretty steady while doing things like that.

  27. addams013

    Charles Boyer: There should be NO spacefllight gaps. For example, the one that addams013 recollects would have been filled quite easily by Saturn 1B/Apollo CSM craft, we simply chose not to fly them, and not only that, lay off the workforce that could build it, assemble it and launch it.

    But that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? If NASA had had enough money to keep an Apollo support workforce (including the personnel, facilities, and technology necessary to maintain the spacecraft and those who train for it) and design and assemble Apollo spacecraft for various mission contingencies and develop the Shuttle, they could have realized the no-spaceflight-gaps scenario you argue for.

    The cost of continuing a given spaceflight program does not end with assembled hardware.

  28. Charles Boyer


    Indeed, it is the problem. Space exploration by and large has been underfunded — both manned and robotic. The technology for reliable space-flight has existed for more than forty years, but we’ve not truly taken advantage of it in the ways that we could — and should have.

  29. Ryan The Biologist

    Elon Musk is a true visionary, and the world needs more millionaires like him. Every time I hear something about this guy, I can’t help but think “Hell YEAH!” Affordable and practical electric cars, commercial access to space, secure online purchasing, Mr. Musk is the kind of guy that really has it together.

  30. addams013

    Charles Boyer: The technology for reliable space-flight has existed for more than forty years, but we’ve not truly taken advantage of it in the ways that we could — and should have.

    I’m inclined to agree. If you ever want to experience the melancholy of What Could Have Been, look up Apollo Applications sometime. One of the ideas that grabs my imagination is a plan to use a pack of consumables in place of a LM and use the Saturn IV-B stage to push it and an Apollo CSM to a Near-Earth Asteroid rendezvous. (Some of those asteroids require less delta-v to visit than the Moon!) Or what might have been possible if we’d used a Centaur as an upper stage. Heck, if you ever just wanted to take something the size of a Volkswagen and hurl it clear of the Solar System, the Saturn V represented that kind of technology.

    Which we no longer possess, incidentally. Maybe the Ares V will help us realize some of those missed opportunities.

  31. Duckfish

    As a staunch libertarian and space geek, this is immensely exciting to me. In my opinion the whole reason why space flight has been so slowly advancing over the past forty years is that it’s been entirely government-run. In America, the only true innovations that were completely government-run were Apollo and the atom bomb, and both of them were “cost is no object” projects. The private sector is the only place where true space innovation can take place, and it is there where I’ll be looking for the future of space flight. NASA has done its job, but it’s about to become obsolete, given the spending cuts and the complete lack of mobility until Ares is released. Go private sector.

  32. Elmar_M

    I am with John Powell on this, the DCX was the much more realistic approach. The Venture Star was to ambitious. I hate to say it, but ever since von Braun retired NASA has had a bad hand when it came to designing launch vehicles. The Constellation system is a way to expensive and not very well designed architecture. It will not make access to space any cheaper, nor will it make it more maintainable.
    IMHO NASA should put money into the development of technologies for launch vehicles, but leave the ultimate design and construction of LVs to private companies.
    I still hope that someone will build some DC-X like vehicle one day. There are some private companies that are heading that way, but they are only going suborbital for now.

  33. Buzz Parsec

    Convective cooling doesn’t work in space. It requires gravity. You are all thinking of conductive cooling.

  34. Renee Marie Jones

    The SpaceX report is dated On September 28, 2008! This isn’t really NEWS is it?

  35. Floyd


    Libertarians are supposedly motivated only by potential profit. One of the big problems in this era is that there’s little profit in research and development, so businesses don’t do R&D. In the US, R&D has mostly been funded by the government in the past, not by the private sector.
    NASA was able to fund R & D by businesses in the past, but like you say, there’s little of that funding around these days.

    If you can find some private entrepreneur with deep pockets (like the owner of Virgin) that’s willing to fund a space project, then you’re good, but there aren’t too many businesses that are willing–too much risk.


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