Falcon 9 getting ready for maiden voyage

By Phil Plait | February 22, 2010 12:30 pm

President Obama’s plan for NASA in the future is to rely heavily on private industry. One of the companies preparing for this is SpaceX, which has tested its first generation Falcon 1 rocket successfully. The Falcon 9 is a much larger rocket capable of carrying a much heavier payload, but has not yet flown.

However, the first F9 is at Cape Canaveral, getting ready for launch. It’s been sitting horizontally in a hangar for some time, but is now vertical.

F9_Vertical_Sunset

It will undergo a series of ground tests, including a 3.5 second full engine firing (the rocket will be locked down to keep it from going anywhere) before it’ll be cleared for launch. Launch could be as early as March!

Once it’s flown, the next step will be to carry a test version of the Dragon module — the part that will carry big payloads — on top which could happen as early as July. Once that passes, SpaceX will be ready to start ferrying material to the space station. They hope to be able to be man-rated by 2013 or 2014, so they can begin to ferry humans into orbit.

Image credit: Chris Thompson/SpaceX

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Pretty pictures, Space
MORE ABOUT: SpaceX

Comments (45)

Links to this Post

  1. pligg.com | February 23, 2010
  1. Ryan The Biologist

    Elon Musk is awesome. That’s all I really feel the need to say.

  2. ScottW

    Looking forward to a successful test!

  3. I can’t wait for this. This could be the start of a new generation of Space travel.

  4. nevermindnathan

    Good luck and godspeed.

  5. drow

    sweet. this is going to be as cool as, i dunno, rocket racing, or something.

  6. As awesome as this is (and it really is freaking cool), it’s kinda sad that in the future NASA won’t be able to launch their own astronauts into space.

  7. NewEnglandBob

    Wow, the Millennium Falcon! Fantastic!

    Next, they will have Han Solo pilot her.

  8. this was GREAT information. i’d had a hard time understanding the time line here, and i didn’t quite grasp prior to reading this that deliveries to ISS would be made un-manned. I was really confused by the Space X production blog and other stories i’d read. Also, thanks for sharing that picture!

  9. Joey Joe Joe

    I hope everything goes smoothly. They may have had the funds to absorb a few Falcon 1 failures, but this one looks a wee bit more expensive.

  10. XMark

    Yeeha! I’ve been following the Falcon 9′s progress for a while. Can’t wait to watch the launch!

  11. Drivethruscientist

    That looks a bit small … How does this compare in size to, say, the Delta rocket series that Boeing manufactures? Anyone know?

    Actually, just found the info. About 30-50 feet for the delta IV and about 20 feet for the atlas series. Crazy, I guess i just had an inflated picture of theserockets in my head.

  12. Mike

    >>It’s been sitting horizontally in a hanger for some time, but is now vertical.

    Did the stimulus have anything to do with this?

    (Ahem… sorry…)

  13. Drivethruscientist: a 180ft long rocket is not substantial to you?

    All for spaceX. Can’t wait to see this thing go.*

    *note: while I’m a huge fan, it’s probably also important to understand that what spaceX has done thus far is orders of magnitude smaller capability than anything on this side of the river (NASA). The journey from where they are to where we need to be to equal, say, current shuttle capabilities (which we are about to lose) is a long and arduous one.

  14. Elmar_M

    From my understanding is that this is already going to be a test item of the Dragon capsule (pre rpoduction model) on top of this Falcon flight. The next one will have a “full” Dragon capsule on top, if I am not mistaken.

  15. Jon Hanford

    The new dawning of man’s reach into space?

  16. I can’t wait to see this awesome rocket launch. Here’s to hoping that they can eventually achieve their goal of reducing the cost to orbit by 10x.

  17. Ferris Valyn

    6. BarMonger – why is it sad? First, NASA doesn’t have its own airline to transport its employees. Second, NASA’s role should be to send astronauts where private industry isn’t currently going. In other words, get NASA working on launching stuff from earth orbit, to beyond LEO. This is precisely the way it should work.

    9. Joey Joe Joe – actually, Musk has said that he can deal with the loss of this vehicle, should the unthinkable happen

    11. DriveThruscientist – the payload capacity, which is the major factor, is about equivlent to the Delta IV or Atlas V base rockets

    13. Spiv – Actually, this is a very capable rocket, and capsule, far more capable than say Apollo & Saturn Ib. True, it can’t deliver the same level of cargo in a single launch, but it can do so at a much cheaper amount.

  18. Brian Too

    That’s some pretty serious looking rocket hardware right there! Let’s hope the inevitable teething troubles are minimal.

  19. Gary Ansorge

    Still waiting for my nuclear powered launch vehicle(crickets).

    Can industry reduce launch costs by an order of magnitude? I expect they can(thru mass production). Can they reduce it 100 times? Not w/o a radical new launch tech ( chemically fueled rockets only have so much room for improvement. )

    Nucs Now!!!(or mag lev or tethers or,,,)

    Gary 7

  20. Wow! Didn’t realize they were that far along. I heard “Falcon 1″ and “Falcon 9″ and naively assumed there would be 7 stages in between…

    What’s the difference for being “man-rated”? Is it lift-capability, or safety, or something else?

  21. Squidmonde

    Falcon 9 first went vertical January 10, 2009. I guess that was just to test how good a fit things were at the launch pad. This looks like the “Falcon 9 going vertical and not planning to go back horizontal again” step. Anyway, as far as scheduling human flights, I’ll believe it when I see it.

  22. Ferris Valyn

    20. Nicole

    Actually, there was a Falcon 5, once upon a time. But Musk decided he’d be better switching over to the Falcon 9.

    BTW, Falcon 1 vs Falcon 9 refers to the number of Engines on the first stage (Falcon 1 has 1 Merlin engine,l Falcon 9 has 9 Merlin engines – when there was a Falcon 5, it had, you guessed it, 5 Merlin engines)

    Also, you asked about man-rated – this is one of those quasi-concepts, that both mean something, and don’t. In a VERY strict sense, there is a document in NASA that references what man-rating is. However, its really a NASA internal document, and not really that great for something developed outside of NASA. There is discussions of developing regulations and the like that allows for certification of vehicles, for “man-rating status” but NASA has not produced such a document.
    Really, man-rating is about safety (technical term is enhanced mission assurance)

    21 Squidmonde

    Why so skeptical about human flights? They’ve made a lot of progress, and aren’t doing anything radical in their methods of operation. Russia has already done a totally private space mission, so why can’t we in the US do it?

  23. Rob

    I’m still waiting to see a space fountain.

  24. MadScientist

    Correction: SpaceX will still not be ready to ferry goods to the ISS; as with ESA and the Jules Verne type spacecraft, SpaceX will have to successfully demonstrate a series of abort and approach maneuvers. People are pretty keen not to be rammed by approaching vehicles; that happened to Mir and the poor spacecraft was plagued with problems ever since. Until then I guess we’ll have to hand money to ESA to deliver goodies. It is very important that the shuttles finish the job of delivering the largest pieces of the ISS since it is the only extant vehicle which can do it and also provides a great construction platform; that huge jointed boom from Canada is pretty useful.

    @Nicole #20: As Ferris says, it’s a safety thing. With purely remote commanded systems and no humans, if anything goes wrong the vehicle is diverted if possible to avoid even more costly incidents; the vehicle is invariably destroyed. When humans are involved there’s a lot more planning on what is likely to go wrong and what systems can be put in place to recover; the result is more reliable but far more costly hardware. The story of Apollo 13 is a good example of how such systems come into play (and how people deal with totally unforeseen circumstances). Challenger and Columbia remind us that despite the best efforts at planning, things can still go very wrong.

  25. Thanny

    The idea of private commercial rockets for sending humans up just makes me queasy.

    Businesses exist to make money, and if it comes down to a choice between better safety or more profit, it’s no mystery which one wins.

    The amount of oversight that would be required to ensure the best possible safety has to kill any conceivable fiscal advantage attendant to using a private launch company. I don’t see any legitimate advantage over NASA doing the launch in-house, and using private contractors only for building the parts.

  26. MadScientist

    @Thanny: I wouldn’t worry – lawsuits and terrified customers will sort out any bad flight providers; a good rule is don’t be one of the first. Besides, current spaceflight is possible due largely to private companies. Even the gear essentially fully owned and developed with NASA funds is mostly built by non-government corporations. For European operations I think 100% of launches are controlled by private industry; why would government agencies have a monopoly on being able to launch things?

  27. Grand Lunar

    I have the highest enthusiasm for SpaceX’s sucess in this venture.
    (Yes, I intentianly tried to emulate HAL. So there!)

    Wish I had the right stuff to work for SpaceX just to be part of it!
    But unless they need someone with skills of a marine mechanic…:(

    I look forward to a day where not only does NASA make use of commercial companies for manned flights to orbit, but also for competion between companies to make the bid.

    I think this can save NASA money in the long run, allowing it to make a new spacecraft intended for deep space operations (like Buzz Aldrin’s Exploration Module).

    BTW Phil, saw you on TV a few days ago, on a program about the Hubble telescope.

  28. gss_000

    Actually, new reports say the launch will be as early as April. I’d forget about a launch date for now until the upcoming tests are done. It’s going to be pushed back some. If the company itself is saying it’s possible it could launch in May, that’s when I’d expect it at the earliest. But I’ll be pleasantly surprised for an earlier launch. Let’s see how the fueling test goes this week.

    @MadScientist

    Don’t forget the Japanese. The HTV was also designed to carry cargo and is large enough for experiment racks as well.

  29. Ari

    From NASA:

    “Central to the technology-development plan would be development of a hydrocarbon-fueled engine that could be used in a heavy-lift rocket “or as the first stage of a future launch vehicle.” One “strong candidate,” the documents state, would be a liquid oxygen/kerosene engine “approximately equal to or exceeding” the performance of the RD-180. Built to power the United Launch Alliance Atlas V, the RD-180 is a stripped down version of the Energomash RD-170 originally developed for the Soviet Union’s Energia launch vehicle.”

    Almost no words to describe how assinine NASA has become … Musk and Co better save us because these idiots clearly can’t *shakes head*

  30. Ferris Valyn

    Thanny – right now, private industry launches our satellites. In addition, large segments of NASA already use private industry – its private Contractors (United Space Alliance) that does a lot of the processing for the shuttle. In fact, NASA doesn’t even own the IP of the shuttle.

    The major difference going on is whether NASA will design each and every little piece, and whether private industry will also put money into the project. Because right now, NASA allows for unlimited cost overruns, using cost-plus contracting.

    This will help save money

    Ari – NASA is finally getting on the right path. Constellation has been so much of a disappointment. It wasn’t going anywhere fast. And we aren’t just relying on SpaceX. There are a number of other good vehicles and companies that are working on this as well

  31. RocketDad

    @Drivethruscientist:
    Huh? Maybe just the first stage of the Delta IV is that tall. Overall height varies from 206 – 235ft.

    I hope the Falcon 9 does well. I also hope that SpaceX accepts outside help (or seeks it out) when there is a problem. They tend to have a huge ego and basically ignore any advice from anyone else in the rocket industry. They could have avoided the early problems with the Falcon 1 if they would have performed a little more research and asked around.

  32. Simon Jester

    Now if government will just stay the heck out of the way of the private space industry! Go SpaceX!

  33. gss_000

    @RocketDad

    That would be nice, but it’s not going to happen. Why would any company have outside help come in and potential take their secrets? Why should these companies behave any differently than every other company in existence? Not to say the government is the end all and be all, but these aren’t altruists. Look at Blue Origins. They have revealed very little about their spacecraft even though they’re now getting funds. I’d feel a lot better if they were more transparent with my tax money.

    As for problems, if there is one, expect months of delays, at least at first. One good thing about the shuttle and the mass of dedicated shuttle workers is they can quickly fix most problems. So far, SpaceX and others can’t do that. That’s not a criticism of private companies, just a fact. Look at the fifth launch attempt that was SpaceX first and only commercial launch so far. Once SpaceX was able to prove that the Falcon 1 could fly successfully (the reason for the fourth launch), the satellite was supposed to launch in March 2009. SpaceX discovered a problem, correctly halted the launch, but it wasn’t until July that it was able to try again.

    Now, I don’t think it will be like forever. Over time, assuming it is successful, I think these companies will be like ULA in terms of turn around and problem solving. But that company has been launching rockets for years (the Delta II has been launching since 1989). I think our rosy view and their over optimistic schedules is going to lead to problems unless we make sure we transfer the diligence the Unite Space Alliance now applies to the shuttle to all these craft.

  34. Ari

    Ferris:

    “Ari – NASA is finally getting on the right path. Constellation has been so much of a disappointment. It wasn’t going anywhere fast. And we aren’t just relying on SpaceX. There are a number of other good vehicles and companies that are working on this as well”

    Missed the point entirely … Read this again (from NASA today/yesterday):

    “Central to the technology-development plan would be development of a hydrocarbon-fueled engine that could be used in a heavy-lift rocket “or as the first stage of a future launch vehicle.” One “strong candidate,” the documents state, would be a liquid oxygen/kerosene engine “approximately equal to or exceeding” the performance of the RD-180. Built to power the United Launch Alliance Atlas V, the RD-180 is a stripped down version of the Energomash RD-170 originally developed for the Soviet Union’s Energia launch vehicle.”

    NASA’s idea of Disruptive Transformational Technology (with the new money/vision) is recreating something similar and “approximately equal to” something designed 30 years ago. SERIOUSELY?????????? The same incompetent, ass covering, risk averse idiots that created the abortion known as Constellation have already shown they have learned absolutely nothing and have absolutely no understanding of what needs to be done (and that they have been directed to do).

    My point is that with this type of “misguidiation” that Musk and Co (all the non-NASA potentials) are our ONLY hope. 7000 jobs lost – we deserve to ALL lose our jobs for our disservice to the American people.

  35. gss_000

    Before we get too angry, there’s something that few have reported, but NASA only received the budget 2 days before it was rolled out, so many of the plans you’re hearing and quoting now were just formulated over the past few weeks. Usually, agencies submit and receive the budget to review around Thanksgiving time, which is why it’s a lot more detailed than what we have at this point.

    That’s what personally upsets me the most about this whole thing, more than any decision about what to fund or cancel. I expected better of President Obama. This was so sloppily done and rushed that there was no way NASA could plan well.

  36. T_U_T

    Sorry to disappoint you, but falcon 9 is just one more time you guys laboriously reinvent the wheel after you gave up the previous try as too difficult/expensive.
    Read Ari’s posts.
    Are you expecting the same wheel you are reinventing form scratch the third or fourth time is going to be rounder or more cheap ?

  37. Ari

    Here is a recommendation …

    Essentially a three month study (with results to the public/congressional hearing) to define the parameters of transformational heavy lift. Weight, Volume, Diameter, Orbit, etc from all interested parties (NASA, DoD, NAS, Private, Public, Domestic, Foreign, Near Earth, Far Earth, …). Then use the proposed funding to support multiple commercial designs (downselecting to at least two) a system that provides the capability as defined by the users.

    Instead we get let’s demothball our previous effort to reengineer the RD-180 because it might be useful? *I dont even have the words to describe how NOT this is*. NASA yet again tops their previous record for incompetance *repeats shakes head*. Go Falcon, Go Atlas, Go …

  38. RocketDad

    @gss_000
    “That would be nice, but it’s not going to happen. Why would any company have outside help come in and potential take their secrets? Why should these companies behave any differently than every other company in existence? Not to say the government is the end all and be all, but these aren’t altruists. Look at Blue Origins. They have revealed very little about their spacecraft even though they’re now getting funds. I’d feel a lot better if they were more transparent with my tax money.”

    Firstly, what secrets? They might have some special turbopump design or something that they consider proprietary and they should protect those. But that’s not really what I was referring to. I was really thinking of system level design, where there isn’t much to hide.

    Second, the help I was referring to was public domain data, primarily from NASA, and also asking NASA for more information about system design issues. If I recall correctly, the first three flights of Falcon 1 had these three problems (in chronological order I think): 1) Corrosion issues, 2) Stage separation issues (residual thrust), and 3) Degraded performance as a result of a control issue (tank slosh).

    On the first point, many people inside the industry and the around the launch area told SpaceX they couldn’t leave a vehicle on a shoreline pad for a month without protection. That advice was ignored, with subsequent issues for SpaceX. Granted, maybe there isn’t too much they could have done, but they should be much more flexible than NASA. I’m confident they could have avoided the stage separation and slosh/control issues as well if they had simply reviewed problems NASA has had in the past or even simply asked NASA for information and guidance.

    I guess I get irritated because I really want SpaceX to do well without too much expenditure of customer trust and money but they continually make mistakes that could have been easily avoided. I expect that they will have some engine start sequence issues on the Falcon 9 because they haven’t done the appropriate research. Hopefully they won’t have too many delays though.

  39. Thanks for the answers, Ferris Valyn and MadScientist. I wonder if NASA is providing funding to SpaceX, they may have them follow the same safety recommendations as well. Or at least ones that fit this particular hardware.

  40. MaDeR

    T_U_T: “Are you expecting the same wheel you are reinventing form scratch the third or fourth time is going to be rounder or more cheap ?”
    Yes, cheaper. At least Musk thinks so. And no, this is not reinventing from scrath. Or you seriously think he did not review 50 year of rocket development history?

  41. UmTutSut

    MaDer wrote: “Or you seriously think he did not review 50 year of rocket development history?” Apparently he didn’t in developing the Falcon 1. Two of the failed flights were caused by problems — pogo and residual first-stage thrust — that engineers recognized and solved in the 50s and 60s.

  42. UmTutSut

    One other issue no one seems to be raising is commonality of human spacecraft. There are what, a half-dozen designs for human spacecraft on paper, all from different companies, all with different configurations? That’s a recipe for an astronaut training nightmare. A crew conceivably would train for one mission on one launch vehicle/spacecraft, then have to learn the idiosyncracies of another launch vehicle/spacecraft for the NEXT mission. I guar-on-tee that’s definitely NOT a recipe for cheaper or faster, and it damned sure ain’t better or safer.

  43. Ferris Valyn

    UmTutSut – Its fine to know that those are issues for rockets in general. But you have to determine the tolerances on actual rockets. Its unfortnuate that it took a few tries to get those tolerances correct, but they got it.

    Second, considering astronaut training – the astronauts will not be spending most of their time in the vehicles. In fact, its entirely possible (and makes some sense) that there will be dedicated astronauts who are there to pilot the vehicle (they might even be company employees), who take the astronauts to ISS, or a waiting spacecraft. The astronauts themselves would only stay in things like Dragon or Orion-lite for a few days, for transport.

  44. Ex-FIDO

    I’ve worked for NASA and for most of the startups. These companies, SpaceX included, have no appreciation for the difficulty of the task, esp. for human-rated flight.

    Constellation was behind schedule/over budget? 2002: Elon Musk promises regular, reliable access to space in three years, for $70M. It’s been *eight* years, he’s spent the better part of a billion dollars, destroyed three vehicles, and put 1 (one) small payload into orbit. Great job, Elon.

    Relying on them for the US manned spaceflight program will be an unmitigated disaster. I really wish it weren’t so, but it is. The first time someone dies in his vehicle, the company will fold (if not before). What do we do then? Play video games and watch the Chinese, I guess.

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