Friday, June 4, 2010

Falcon 9: Lift Off!

Falcon 9 launch successful on first test flight.  Wow!
First Stage In Flight

Successful Stage Separation
Second Stage Burn
Yeah, yeah, it's just a test.  But the cost of the entire development program (~$335M) for Falcon 9 is the same as a single test flight for Ares I-X (~$445M)...

From my perspective (as someone who's sat in the hot seat conducting flight tests), the really impressive thing with the SpaceX operation was their ability  to light the engines, auto-abort, and turn a new countdown/launch at the end of their range time.  There was clearly a whole lot of work in the design phase leading up to the impressive execution today that made saving the mission possible.  Nice.


  1. Requiring contractor “skin in the game: With COTS, the government required commercial investment to supplement government funds. It was anticipated at the outset that the funding available from NASA would not be sufficient to entirely fund the development and demonstration of multiple commercial cargo delivery systems. It was expected that the partner would supplement NASA money with private capital. Commercial investment was incentivized by the probability (but not certainty) that NASA would be a significant customer for the capability developed. This results in “multiplication of investment” for the Government.
    "COTS-like": the future of space procurement

  2. Knowledge-driven combined/collocated design and manufacturing makes sense:
    SpaceX has a corporate structure that, according to sources, supports collaboration and efficient decision-making. A designer with an idea can walk over to the manufacturing engineer, talk about it, and then go to the floor to see if it will work.

    Thompson added that this couldn't happen without another unorthodox strategy: in-house manufacturing. The 500-plus-employee firm doesn't require high volumes; in its early years SpaceX found outsourced jobs delayed as job shops gave priority to larger contracts. So the company, mostly an assembler in 2002, since has brought 90 percent of its manufacturing, including almost all of its metal fabrication, in-house.

    Rocket Science: Entrepreneur-Style

  3. From Ares I-X vs Falcon 9 Comparison:
    To put it in perspective, if the Augustine commission estimate of $1 billion per Ares 1 flight is correct, and if the SpaceX estimates for the Falcon 9 launch costs are correct, you could launch about twenty Falcon 9′s or twelve Falcon 9 heavies for the same price as one Ares 1 launch. Converting that to payload to orbit, $1 billion could get you 209,000 kg to LEO using Falcon 9′s, 410,000 kg using Falcon 9 heavies, or 25,400 kg on the Ares 1.

    There have been some negative comments saying that SpaceX just proved that it can do what NASA did fifty years ago, namely launch cargo into LEO. But those comments ignore the fact that once the shuttle is retired, NASA can’t do that anymore, and wouldn’t be able to for many years and many billions of dollars. The way things are going, it looks likely that SpaceX or another commercial provider will be able to fill the gap in access to the ISS much quicker and for much less money than if NASA were to do it.

  4. From the daily AIAA news brief:
    Musk: Iridium Deal Validates Obama Space Policy.
    The Wall Street Journal (6/16, Xu, subscription required) website reported on the deal announced today between SpaceX and Iridium Communications for SpaceX to launch its next generation of communications satellites from the Vandenberg Air Force Base starting in 2015. The deal for $492 is the largest single commercial launch deal ever. Iridium did say on Wednesday it is talks with another company for launch services.

    The Orlando Sentinel (6/116, Block) "Write Stuff" blog reported during a teleconference, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk "said that more than half of his company's manifest of about 30 launches are purely commercial (not government ) affairs. His statement challenges critics of private space companies whom have maintained that there is not enough commercial business to support them." Musk "asserted that SpaceX's business success validates President Barack Obama's proposal to outsource to companies like SpaceX the flying of cargo and eventually astronauts to the International Space Station." He also claimed that the launches would help lower launch costs. Musk "dismissed a report by the Wall Street Journal that said SpaceX needed $1 billion to proceed with its plans to develop the Dragon space capsule and Falcon 9 rocket to be capable of launching humans."

    According to Florida Today (6/17, Halvorson), the deal "was seen as a big vote of confidence in the rocket company." Iridium CEO Matt Desch "said SpaceX's successful June 4 Falcon 9 test flight and its $1.6 billion NASA International Space Station cargo contract gave Iridium confidence to sign up with" SpaceX. Musk added, "I think it really reinforces the fact that SpaceX and Falcon 9 are the vehicle of choice not just for NASA but for the commercial sector."

    The Torrance (CA) Daily Breeze (6/17, El-Hasan) notes Desch "suggested that the scheduled launches are far enough in the future to ensure the reliability and safety of the new rocket. He noted that SpaceX has 24 scheduled Falcon 9 launches, for government and commercial customers, ahead of the Iridium flights." Twelve of those flights will be to the International Space Station.

    The International Business Times (6/17, Emspak) notes that some have doubted SpaceX's claims and goals because others like Sea Launch have failed to do the same thing. "Musk said SpaceX is in a better position than Sea Launch was as it has more than one site to launch from; Sea Launch had a failure on the ship it was using as a launch pad, so it was unable to keep operating while repairs and an investigation into the problem were going on." Futron analyst Jeff Foust "said if SpaceX can maintain its cost-effectiveness, then it is in a position to compete with United Launch Alliance and Orbital Science Corp." Musk said his lack of subcontractors is what has kept his costs down.

  5. Shotwell mentions in this press conference that the reason for the abort on this shot was the same as the recent abort on the first ISS docking mission: engine 5 combustion chamber pressure too high.

  6. Skin in the game:
    After seeing firsthand what Juliet Marine built with $5 million, Kinsella said, “If you were taken around by a handler from Lockheed or Grumman or Northrop or any of them, and they told you, ‘We developed this on $150 million,’ you wouldn’t bat an eye.” He told the story of a meeting with Avalon and its fund investors. Someone asked Sancoff, “How did you get to be so capital efficient in your company?” Kinsella relays, “He leaned on the podium and said, ‘Because it was my money.’”
    Juliet Marine’s “Ghost” Ship Emerges from Stealth Startup, Gears Up for War

  7. Forbes reports: But if Musk and others like him had just given back what they owe the government, we could have kept the NASA space program going from tax dollars. That would have been an expensive proposition. SpaceX can launch payloads at a cost of $500 per pound versus NASA’s $20,000. No worry, it is only taxpayer money anyway.
    What If the Rich Really Gave Back as Obama Wants

  8. Six years after the Pentagon fostered consolidation of its largest rocket makers, Boeing Co. BA -1.30% now claims it was persuaded to participate in a joint venture under false pretenses.
    Boeing Says, Boeing Sues

  9. Space News (Leon, 6 Aug 2012) reports: The U.S. Air Force should limit any bulk order of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) rockets from United Launch Alliance (ULA) to three years’ worth of missions to give competing companies a chance to bring alternative vehicles to market, the leaders of the House Intelligence Committee said in a letter to U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

    “We support the Air Force’s effort to achieve some economies of scale to provide the best value for the taxpayer, but we are concerned that any EELV block buy that goes beyond three years worth of launches will unnecessarily exclude competition,” Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) wrote in the Aug. 2 letter. Rogers and Ruppersberger are the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

  10. iWatch News (Toombs, 13 April) reports: The latest salvo comes from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and ranking member C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., who complained in an August 2 letter the Pentagon’s largest launch project “lacks domestic competition and is unable to compete internationally due to high costs.”

  11. Quotables from SpaceX and LockMart on the occasion of SpaceX breaking in to DoD launch contracts:

    LockMart CEO Stevens:
    I’m hugely pleased with 66 in a row from ULA, and I don’t know the record of SpaceX yet. Two in a row?

    Cost doesn’t matter at all if you don’t put the ball into orbit. You can thrift on cost. You can take cost out of a rocket. But I will guarantee you, in my experience, when you start pulling a lot of costs out of a rocket, your quality and your probability of success in delivering a payload to orbit diminishes.

    SpaceX CEO Musk:
    The fundamental reason SpaceX’s rockets are lower cost and more powerful is that our technology is significantly more advanced than that of the Lockheed-Boeing rockets, which were designed last century.

    As reported in lots of articles:
    Washington Post

    Here's the basic stats on successful launches vs. estimated probability of success. SpaceX will have a chance to test the Stevens Conjecture with it's new contract from DoD and the ISS resupply missions it has on contract with NASA.

  12. Competition is Critical to Any Ecosystem
    One of the reasons the Web has better tools than the government is competition.

    Take airfare as an example. There are countless websites that help you buy plane ticket, each of them constantly improving their tools and layouts to make you happier. And if you aren't happy with those sites, you're free to start your own business and compete with them. But when the government contracts new software, it gets only one product out of it. Instead of many choices, users have only two: use this tool, or use nothing.

    Open Government