SpaceX and the Future of Human Space Flight

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On Friday, June 4th, 2010, a major milestone was reached in the history of human spaceflight.

SpaceX, a private aerospace company founded by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, successfully launched their Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, FL (20 miles from where I work) into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), around 155 miles from Earth’s surface.

View from my bedroom window… OK not really, but almost.

SCREEE… *record scratch*

This launch was not the first private company to launch a rocket into LEO, they did have funding & assistance from NASA, and the launch configuration was not a simulation for human flight.

So why was this such a momentous occasion?  Find out after the jump…

“SpaceX’s accomplishment is an important milestone in the commercial transportation effort and puts the company a step closer to providing cargo services to the International Space Station…This launch of the Falcon 9 gives us even more confidence that a resupply vehicle will be available after the space shuttle fleet is retired.”

- NASA Administrator Charles Bolden

Whether or not you agree with the Obama Administration’s decision to cancel the Constellation program (due to the findings of the Augustine Commission), the future of space technology is nevertheless going to include contributions from private, non-government-funded companies.

You may recall that in 2004, the world was in awe as a private company called Scaled Composites successfully produced and launched a human into space on a crazy-looking spacecraft called SpaceShipOne.

Though it was not designed to reach an orbital altitude, this was an equally momentous occasion as it was the first time that a non-governmental entity had succeeded in manned spaceflight.

SpaceX’s achievement is similar, in that the Falcon 9 rocket is the first successful launch ofhuman-rated rocket developed by a private company with no government funding (disclaimer: they received a NASA contract after the development of the Falcon 9 was already underway, based on NASA’s confidence in the perceived value of the design).  No humans were obviously on this flight, and the dummy payload was not in the configuration needed for a human capsule, but the Falcon 9 rocket, along with the Dragon spacecraft, represent a new option for human transport from Earth to the International Space Station in the years to come.

Another private company, Orbital Sciences Corporation, has successfully developed a small portfolio of rockets capable of launching satellites and even planetary probes with little to no government funding, however none of the OSC rockets are human-rated, and are based on antequated Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) designs.

The SpaceX rockets on the other hand, represent an entirely new era of rocket-design, as both the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets were design from the ground-up to be entirely new systems.  This is a refreshing change of pace, after seeing revision-after-revision of Delta and Atlas rockets coming out of the United Launch Alliance.  As a result, the Falcon rockets have some high-tech design aspects that place them above the other current-generation rockets.

  1. True engine-out capability
    The Falcon 9 first-stage has NINE (count-em, NINE) full-fledged Merlin 1C engines powering it’s ascent.


    However, for most of the flight envelope, only eight engines are required for a successful mission.  The benefit here is two-fold: for this specific failure-mode (engine failure), they have successfully reduced the potential risk to the mission, while also reducing the overall probability of failure (as more engines means more production replications, which means a fast development of production “heritage”, and therefore system reliability…Click this link, it’s a good read…).

  2. Pneumatically Actuated Stage Separation
    A first for multi-stage rockets; the Falcon 9 uses a pneumatic system to separate the 1st stage from the 2nd stage.  In all other rockets, explosive bolts are used to initiate stage separation.


    It’s tough to see anything in this photo, but the video shows the smoothest stage separation you’ll ever see.

    The advantage to a pneumatic system is, again, two-fold.  First, the actual flight-hardware can be tested on the ground before flight.  With explosive bolts, you obviously can’t test the bolts that are used on the actual rocket before launch.  Second, since the separation event is non-destructive, more of the first-stage can be re-used or recycled.

  3. Advanced Materials
    The Space Shuttle was designed in the 1970’s, and as such, uses 1970’s era material technology.  Since then we’ve had countless advances in both metallic and non-metallic structures, and the Falcon rockets take full advantage of this, utilizing a high-tech Al-Li alloy propellant tank and Al-C composite sandwich interstage structure.  These advances alloy the ENTIRE structure; both the 1st and 2nd stages, to achieve quote-unquote “full re-usability”, according to SpaceX.  Even the Space Shuttle, which is “supposedly” re-usable, allegedly requires almost $200 Million* in maintenance between each flight; over 4 times the cost of a single Falcon 9 flight.
* This is completely anecdotal.  Finding an actual number is difficult, as the required maintenance after each flight depends on the particular circumstances of each flight. *

So what’s the big deal?

The big deal is this: The Falcon 9 is going to replace the Space Shuttle. It’s going to do it while making a profit AND reducing costs for NASA.  Thank goodness the Falcon 9 launch was successful, because if it weren’t the nay-sayers of private-spaceflight would be able to point a finger and say “See! Private companies can’t do what NASA does!”  Instead, SpaceX has continued a trend of renewed public interest in spaceflight, whose momentum will hopefully carry us into a “2nd Renaissance” in space exploration.

Can you imagine what sort of projects NASA can spend their money on now that the problem of getting from the ground to Earth-orbit is covered by private companies?  Think huge space-stations, captured asteroids, interplanetary human exploration (and the ships that fly them), moon-bases, and most importantly; more people in space.

It’s a great time to be an aerospace engineer.  =D

P.S. Here’s a good overview of the launch from SpaceFlightNow.com

SpaceX’s accomplishment is an important milestone in the commercial transportation effort and puts the company a step closer to providing cargo services to the International Space Station
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3 Responses to SpaceX and the Future of Human Space Flight

  1. Kyle U.No Gravatar 8 June, 2010 at 1:36 pm #

    Lots of good info on this one Jacob. Well done. It was a cool launch and it was indeed historic. Despite that the cancelation of Constellation has and will continue to cost jobs, I truly believe it is the correct decision for the US space program. To comment on your last point…NASA has already started to release RFP’s for study contracts for FY2011. They indeed will be very interesting architecture studies (to begin with)… Indeed it is a good time to be an Aerospace Engineer!

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