SpaceX Launches a Satellite

By Sean Carroll | July 14, 2009 11:45 am

For a long time, the government has been responsible for space travel in the United States. That’s about to change.

Government is the appropriate agent for certain forms of collective action: roads, public schools, national defense. It’s also good for big-picture things without immediate financial payoff, like support for the arts or basic scientific research. It makes perfect sense for the government to shoulder the burden for developing the technologies to get us into space, and it will continue to make sense for them to play an active role in astronomical research in space. But for commercial purposes, like launching satellites, it ultimately makes a lot more sense for space travel to be a private-sector enterprise. We’re on the brink of seeing it happen.

SpaceX is a private company founded by Elon Musk, who previously co-founded PayPal and the electric car company Tesla Motors. For a while now, SpaceX has been developing reusable launch vehicles and space capsules. They’ve been awarded a contract from NASA to take over re-supplying the International Space Station after the Shuttle fleet is mothballed next year. And they’ve had one launch that reached orbit, but also a few failures; until yesterday, they hadn’t succeeded in putting a satellite into orbit.

But now they’ve done it. I was watching on live webcam last night as the Falcon 1 rocket launched a Malaysian satellite into orbit.

It’s incredibly exciting, but just the beginning. The idea behind the Shuttle was to make trips to orbit cheap, reliable, and routine; it failed spectacularly on all counts, and NASA’s capabilities and plans for space flight have become somewhat disjointed (while its science missions continue to have amazing success). Hopefully we’re moving past the point where we have to rely on the government to get us to space.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology, Travel
  • gopher65

    Errrrm… Most launches are conducted by private firms. Even many NASA launches are conducted by private firms. This isn’t significantly different, except that SpaceX didn’t receive an *initial* round of government financing to build a rocket, instead it got its government financing to build the rocket *after* it had already built it. It was just a backwards version of the normal funding process, that’s all. One way or the other, NASA still funded the construction of this rocket, and SpaceX is still going to be funded almost exclusively through the world’s various governments.

    So calling this “private space flight” is a stretch – a big one. This is nothing more than yet another private contractor who produces rockets for government projects. In the end the real difference between SpaceX and, say, Lockheed Martin, is the difference between Delta Airlines and a budget carrier.

    The budget carrier is cheaper, and it normally accomplishes the same goal. But remember, you get what you pay for:P.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like SpaceX, and I hope they succeed. But implying that they are a “private company” is like claiming that Boeing is a “private company”. Technically true, but you’re missing the point of where the money comes from.

  • Eugene

    While what gopher65 said is technically true, the “budget” part of the statement is very important. The usual NASA contractors like Boeing and LM etc, have other huge industries (like aircraft building and military hardware) to support them. What is exciting about Falcon 1, as opposed to other “small spacelaunch companies” like Orbital Sciences (which should rightfully own the tag of “first privately dedicated launch company” now a publicly traded company) is its capability to scale its payload mass via Falcon 9. Many companies, like the late much lamented Conestoga Launch Vehicle, have aspired to make this modular approach work but failed. It’ll be interesting to see how SpaceX evolves.

    I am betting a big company will come and swallow it up.

  • Brian

    No, what gopher65 said isn’t true, not even technically.

    When a private company contracts with NASA to put a satellite in orbit, that’s a NASA vehicle through and through. Assuming it’s a shuttle payload, NASA designed the vehicle, paid for it, built it (even counting primary contractors), manages the launch, and the launch facilities themselves are NASA’s.

    The SpaceX situation is exactly the reverse. The Falcon is a SpaceX designed and built rocket (even counting primary contractors). The launches are managed by SpaceX and the facilities are SpaceX’s. If the government contracts with SpaceX to put a payload in orbit, then the primary responsibility is with SpaceX. It’s their business to win or lose.

    The article is essentially correct. It’s time for NASA to get out of the Low Earth Orbit business, excepting only for exceptionally heavy or large loads. Or at least to begin getting out of that role. It’s not glamorous, does not make the brain trust at NASA happy, and will benefit from private sector techniques. LEO needs to transition to a high volume, repeatable process, and that should finally start to make some inroads into lower launch costs.

    By definition then, this is not “rocket science” and NASA needs to encourage private sector players. This is analogous to the early days of flying, when the postal service seeded the commercial aviation sector by putting out mail contracts. This put money on the table and transitioned flying from an expensive, dangerous hobby, to a reliable, and far cheaper, mass transit system. Without the seed money of those mail contracts flying would have taken far longer to develop commercially.

    What I would NOT do, at least not yet, is trust the private space carriers with astronauts. They aren’t ready for that and it would place the astronauts in unnecessary danger to require human-rated launch vehicles. One day almost certainly, but not now.

  • gopher65

    Brian: When the heck was the last time you saw the shuttle put a sat into orbit? They’re all launched through COMMERCIAL launch companies. NASA does not use its own (very limited) launch capacities for anything other than ISS resupply and, eventually, Lunar missions. That’s it. Nearly every other probe and satellite that was launched in the last ten years by NASA was handled by private companies.

    So, as I said, this is nothing new.

    What’s interesting about SpaceX isn’t so much their rocket (there isn’t an innovative idea to be found. Recycled technology through and through), it’s the fact that they’ve attempted to cut back the very, very expensive infrastructure necessary to produce those rockets to the bare minimum. The jury is still out on whether this will prove to be viable in the long term, or whether they will be forced to bloat their infrastructure due to additional safety and reliability demands from their customers.

    A Falcon 9 Heavy launch will cost ~90 million US dollars, and it will carry a bit more than the shuttle (29,000 kg vs 24,000 kg to LEO (including astronauts)). A shuttle launch costs less than 70 million dollars. They’re really cheap. But once you factor in those tens of thousands of employees, those massive buildings, all that dedicated support and refurbishing infrastructure, the years of R&D, and all those decades worth of pensions from people who have worked on the project in the past, it’s well over a billion per shuttle launch (in extended project costs of course).

    So far SpaceX has managed to avoid what we could loosely term “bloat”. I hope they succeed in avoiding it in the future as well.

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    Brian, the Shuttle has not launched unmanned satellites in years.

    The Delta series of launch vehicles is built by Boeing.

    The Atlas is built by Lockheed Martin.

    The Taurus, Pegasus, and Minotaur Series are built by Orbital Sciences.

  • gopher65

    As an example, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter was launched on an Atlas V.

    (The Atlas V has essentially the same capacity and capabilities as a Falcon 9 Heavy will have… course, it cost a lot more. $138 million compared to $90 million for the same payload. But then, who knows how much of that is just Boeing and Lockheed Martin fleecing the crud out of NASA;)?)

  • Brian

    @gopher65,

    Well, OK, but you’re not changing my basic point. A NASA launch is hugely expensive factoring all-in costs. SpaceX means to change that, as does Armadillo, Virgin Galactic, and the rest.

    Also the fact that SpaceX isn’t particularly innovative isn’t relevant. Launch costs are. In fact SpaceX deliberately went after proven technologies and steered away from innovation. If you hire a moving van, do you want innovation, or low cost and reliability? LEO business demands the latter, not a new way to invent the wheel. Frankly neither SpaceX nor the other small players can afford to spend a lot of time and capital on new things. Maybe when they are better capitalized and have a steady revenue stream, but not now.

    Although there are precious few data points, there is some evidence that tinkering around with launch technologies makes for more dangerous vehicles and raises the launch failure rate. The Russians have stuck with relatively ancient technology and they have the best launch success rates of anyone.

  • http://californiaquantum.com Joseph Smidt

    I would love for space flight to become inexpensive for two reason: 1. I would love to go. 2. Maybe various scientific expeditions would become easier if private cheap modes of space travel are available.

    What we need is a private company to find a cheap way to send stuff to the Lagrangian points. (Just hope L-2 doesn’t become a junk yard.)

  • Christina Viering

    Nope.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/ugordan/ Gordan

    @Lab Lemming: Atlas V and Delta IV are built by United Launch Alliance, a merger of LockMart and Boeing divisions that built those vehicles originally. The rockets have nothing to do with those companies anymore, ULA is the name of the game.

    @gopher56: Actually, no, Atlas V vanilla which launched LRO does *not* equate a Falcon 9 Heavy performance. Granted, the latter is still very much on paper so actual performance needs to be demonstrated first. The same caveat applies to the regular Falcon 9. Falcon 9 and Atlas V (no SRBs) have comparable LEO payloads, but Atlas wins for high energy orbits due to a high energy upper stage. Falcon 9 Heavy would actually have comparable performance to an Atlas V Heavy to LEO, but again lower performance for higher energy trajectories.

    F9H however would (theoretically) blow the regular Atlas V out of the water no matter how you look at it and how many SRBs you put. Which is logical if you consider propellant load masses on both vehicles.

  • |John R Ramsden

    I wonder if any entrepreneur has considered a launch system comprising a ring of large helium airships, linked by cables and kept in shape by lightweight titanium radial struts attached to a central hub that could hold a lighter spaceship.

    Just let the thing float twenty miles up, above most of the atmosphere, and launch the rocket from there. Twenty miles doesn’t sound much, compared with the two hundred or more it must ascend to reach a usful orbit. But the compounded effect of fuel, and hence weight, reduction, and lack of air resistance, might make the scheme economically and technically viable.

    Of course another snag is that the contraption would drift in the slipstream, unless tethered (which doesn’t sound practical, unless the tether itself was made bouyant by similar means). So there might be political problems of straying into other countries’ airspace.

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    John,
    Velocity is more important than altitude, and balloons generally don’t fly very fast. There are aircraft-launched vehicles (Orbital’s Pegasus, and the Rutan-Virgin thingo), but they are all quite small because medium-to-large rockets weigh more than the largest planes or airships. Still, getting the first 500m/s for free ain’t bad.

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  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Perhaps I’m wrong about this, but my understanding was that ULA is essentially a govt.-supported private monopoly, a joint effort between Boeing and LM that exists largely to make the Defense Dept. happy. SpaceX is somewhat more entrepreneurial in its conception and business model, though, as stated above, it’s not without a measure of govt. dependence. In the case of ULA, however, that dependency was and remains complete, pretty much by design. Is this an accurate summary?

  • George

    Well Im sure praying for companies like Spacex to get us into space cheaper and faster. I feel we will never get to the moon or mars if left up to Nasa and congress so I hope spacex gets cots D (manned flight) as soon as possible. nasa is to concerned with safety to much to ever get any exploring off the ground. Once falcon 9 dragon gets up and running and returning safely to earth spacex should put a an astronaut on board whether nasa likes it or not, barn storming space ships :) IM 50 now and doubt I will ever live to see men walk on mars unless Elon Musk does it. the cots program is the right way to do this prize money to fly. Spacex is now completely setup for any paying customer not just governments, ENTER Bigelow and practical light weigh space stations :)
    As far as crazy innovation ideas why not add jets to the first stage. Maybe a jet ring around the base that has jet fuel and engines in the ring and drops of offs after getting the rocket to about 1000 or 2000 miles per hour. Jets could sure help drop over all space craft weigh right?? lighter and greener :) Or maybe just a add canard wings with jet engines and fuel in the wings and use the jets to help with the early boast and with control of the first stage recovery. How would jets compare to srbs ??
    On the subject of government flight i think im leaning to the Jupiter Direct approach we have the that work force and tech now and its important to be flying something soon and not scrap it all like we did with the saturn years ago. I kind of wish spacex’s falcon 9 could fly the astronauts for nasa replacing the ares 1 and nasa just build the ares V now to make sure we have a good heavy lift capacity to fly to Mars. Robert Zubrin said years ago build the heavy lift rocket first and save the cost of all those shuttle flights to finish the space station. nasa should do the heavy lifting and get spacex to do the manned flight. I read that spacex does not plan to launch the first falcon 9 till November of this year? :( HURRY UP BOYS AND GIRLS :)

  • Ken

    Whether it’s a true “private” enterprise or not, I don’t care. I’m just excited for the launch of their new Dragon capsule. This can potentially save the US manned space program. We don’t want a five year gap between the shuttle program and the Constellation Program. This launch is surely the start of something very significant indeed.

  • Pattyann

    The future of space travel is in the private sector. I am excited for SpaceX and hope they continue to be successful! Smart, savvy companies who know what they are doing is what the country needs now more than ever.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Not that I give a rat’s tail about the ISS, but if we insist on using it, the sooner we retire the STS and move on to some alternative, the better. They’ll be examining Endeavor for damage from yet another external tank debris strike. I’ve little stomach for incinerating another seven good people to the tune of half-a-billion dollars, or whatever the current per-launch estimate is. If SpaceX can indeed provide the replacement, we needed it yesterday, forget about a few years from now. Almost anything would be safer than the Shuttle.

  • gopher65

    Low Math: The ISS is a basic infrastructure to build upon. Whether or not it becomes useful depends entirely on what we decide to do with that basic infrastructure.

    Right now, due to money constraints and the shuttle retirement, they’ve cancelled essentially all of the decent science projects that were suppose to be sent up to the ISS. That’s like spending a quarter trillion dollars building highways out into the middle of nowhere, then building powerplants, sewage plants, and housing, only to decide that you’re going to abandoned the project to save a few billion dollars. It’s stupid.

    I wouldn’t have built the ISS in the first place, but since that orbital infrastructure is there, and since the biggest chunk of money is already spent, we might as well try and use it for something. Duct tape a few useful experiments onto the side. Otherwise it’s a waste.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Well, clearly, if they’re not going to listen to Steven Weinberg, they sure as hell aren’t going to listen to me. Or a million people like me. Given that, whether it’s throwing good money after bad or not, NASA is likely to be contributing to the ISS mission for years to come. From my perspective, I say let’s not compound that error with tragedy by continuing to use the STS after its planned, and long overdue, retirement. For that reason above perhaps all others, I’m rooting for SpaceX to deliver on Dragon. I’m further hoping that Falcon/Dragon, and maybe human-rated Atlases and/or Deltas make it clear enough that we don’t need the Ares I, and put a halt to that boondoggle.

  • Karen Rei

    Gopher, you’re simply wrong. SpaceX was cashflow positive summer of last year. They didn’t win any significant COTS funding before December of last year. Please explain how that makes them beholden to NASA. Sure, they one round 1 of COTS funding, but it wasn’t a major disbursement — nothing at all like your typical Boeing or Lockheed rocket development contract. Most of SpaceX’s revenue up to that point had come from prepayment for private launch services.

    The really big deal with the SpaceX Falcon series is not that it’s private, but that it’s almost entirely from-scratch, rather than evolved from earlier rockets. This allowed them to make some major mass production-aiding and cost-cutting design decisions that other stacks weren’t able to make.

  • bob

    Gopher; quote “A shuttle launch costs less than 70 million dollars.”

    LMAO, are you crazy. The shuttle per launch cost between 450 million to 1.3 billion US dollars.

  • Andrew S

    Musk did not found Tesla (though he frequently claims to have done so); he was the first major funder of the company, but didn’t join until about a year after the company was founded.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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