SpaceX Falcon 9: it is what it ISS

spacex falcon 9
Quarter section of the Falcon 9. Photo from SpaceX's Hawthorne, CA headquarters.
by Ross Bonander

Specs:

  • Type: Powered launch vehicle
  • Class: Two-stage
  • Manufacturer: SpaceX
  • Propulsion system: Nine SpaceX Merlin 1C liquid, gas generator engines, 125,000 lbs-f thrust per engine
  • Total thrust: 4.94 MN (1,110,000 lbf)
  • Length: 180 ft (54.9m)
  • Width: 12 ft (3.6m)
  • Fuel(s): Liquid oxygen (LOX) and rocket grade kerosene (RP-1)
  • Market: Medium to large satellites
  • Carrying capability: 12,500 kg (27,558 lbs) to LEO (Low Earth Orbit) and 4,640 kg (10,230 lbs) to GTO (Geostationary Transfer Orbit)
  • Price: $36.7 million
  • Availability: 2010

The manufacturer says

"SpaceX aims develop a family of launch vehicles which will ultimately reduce the cost and increase the reliability of space access by a factor of ten. Coupled with the newly emerging market for private and commercial space transport, this new model will re-ignite humanity's efforts to explore and develop Space."

Falcon 9 Overview

Recently tapped by NASA to help resupply the International Space Station (ISS) in 2010 following the retirement of the Space Shuttle, SpaceX and its Falcon 9 launch vehicle are part of a $1.6 billion, 12-flight US government contract with the potential to be worth double that amount.

ISS Concept from NASA-MSFC

Designed for manned spaceflight, the Falcon 9 launch rocket has its own launch site on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), known as Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC‚Äê40), where the Titan IV heavy lift rockets used to call home. Launch Control Center, a hangar, and administrative offices are also on the premises.

The Falcon 9 is the middle child in SpaceX's family of clean-sheet designed launch rockets: the Falcon 1, Falcon 9, and the Falcon 9 Heavy. The Falcon 9 can survive an engine failure thanks to its "engine-out capability," one of the many reliability features worked into the Falcon 9 by SpaceX engineers.

Check out the Falcon 9's engines burn in this brief SpaceX video.

SpaceX Overview

Elon Musk, of Tesla Roadster fame, founded Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) in 2002 with "the long-term goal of enabling humanity to become a space-faring civilization". He is both CEO and CTO, and SpaceX is contributing to the man's potential legacy as one of the great pioneers of the unfettered human spirit. Musk envisions SpaceX as the planet's premiere space services firm, providing reliable and affordable rocketry and spacecraft to government agencies and private companies.

Musk's SpaceX operates out of a 550,000+ square foot manufacturing facility near Los Angeles International Airport. They use a 300-acre site near Waco, Texas for testing. They've been in successful operation as far back as March 2006 when the SpaceX Falcon I completed its first commercial launch.

In addition to rocketry, SpaceX is also working with NASA to develop Dragon, a free-flying, reusable spacecraft that can host scientific experiments in outer space as well as address the needs of cargo and crew for the International Space Station (ISS). For commercial flights unrelated to the ISS, Dragon goes under the name DragonLab.

The Merlin 1C Engine

Calling it "the highest performance gas generator cycle kerosene engine ever built" and claiming it exceeds "the Boeing Delta II main engine, the Lockheed Atlas II main engine and the Saturn V F-1", the Merlin engine is the key to the Falcon 9's perceived future success.

Merlin 1c
Merlin 1C engine (Cory Stewart/SpaceX)

It was developed chiefly by SpaceX propulsion chief Tom Mueller, who drew on NASA's long tradition of proven launch technology. For example, Merlin's pintle style injector was pioneered in the lunar module landing engine, and Falcon 9 features nine Merlin engines clustered together, architecture with precedent in the Saturn V rockets.

The Merlin 1C engine, armed with a single shaft, dual impeller turbo-pump, powers both the first and second stages of the Falcon 9 launch. Nine 1C engines power first stage, and a single Merlin 1C, equipped with a larger vacuum nozzle for efficiency, powers the second stage.

Conclusions

SpaceX's Falcon 9 launch vehicle has not yet endured her inaugural launch, yet her launch manifest is booked through 2015 like a debutante's dance card. Customers include NASA, Bigelow Aerospace, the Swedish Space Corporation and the Argentine Space Agency, among others.

There's an old saying among Classical music fans comparing Beethoven and Mozart. Mozart, so goes the saying, floated down and opened the gates of Heaven. Beethoven kicked them in.

Musk, as head of Tesla, has kicked in the gates of the automotive industry. And he's doing the same for commercial space exploration. You don't have to like this guy, but he's on the threshold of some future greatness. Call me what you will, but one day your grandkids will ask you about what it was like to live in the same era as two men: Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. When you answer, try not to stutter.

Dive Deeper

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