Elon Musk is nothing if not audacious. The billionaire PayPal co-founder burst onto the space scene in 2002 with plans to build a small rocket at a fraction of the cost of comparable vehicles, a claim that grabbed the interest of prospective customers while ruffling the feathers of many in the industry’s establishment. The Falcon 1 rocket eventually did launch successfully — after three initial failures — but took longer and cost more than Musk anticipated.
Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has since moved on, shelving the Falcon 1 — much to the dismay of some current and prospective customers for that vehicle — to focus on delivering cargo to the international space station on a commercial basis using the medium-lift Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule. SpaceX thinned the herd of critics in December by successfully launching Dragon, developed with NASA funding assistance under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, and then recovering the capsule after it made two Earth orbits.
SpaceX has at least one more COTS demonstration to fly before it begins regular cargo sorties to the space station sometime next year and also has landed contracts to launch commercial satellites for companies like Iridium and SES. The SES satellite would be SpaceX’s first mission to geostationary orbit (GEO), and the deal stipulates that SpaceX first demonstrate an upgraded version of its in-house-built Merlin engine and a new payload fairing.
But even as SpaceX attempts to swallow all it has on its plate, the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company is setting its sights even higher, unveiling plans to develop a heavy-lift Falcon variant that would compete directly with the established Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets to launch U.S. national security satellites. The company also recently nabbed a $75 million contract to refine design work on an astronaut-carrying version of the Dragon capsule.
Musk envisions ramping up to 20 launches per year, a rate that would keep per-vehicle costs low enough for SpaceX to compete across the broad spectrum that is the commercial, government and human spaceflight marketplace. Once again, the critics are scoffing.
Musk spoke recently with Space News staff writer Amy Svitak.
SpaceX’s advertised $125 million price tag for the Falcon Heavy assumes a launch rate of four per year. What happens if the rate is just one or two?
It depends on what our Falcon 9 volume is because the same basic components are used in Falcon 9. Provided Falcon 9 volume is still going strong then I think you’d see the cost of Falcon Heavy would be driven by the incremental cost of maintaining more pad infrastructure and the two production configurations; there’s some overhead associated with that. I’d be shocked if it’s one, but if it’s two or three you might see a 10 or 20 percent increase in cost.
What is the development schedule for Falcon Heavy?
For Falcon Heavy I think we’ll have it at the pad at the end of next year. I expect launch of Falcon Heavy some time in the first half of 2013. I think a lot of people overestimate the difficulty of Falcon Heavy. We’re taking the stretched version of Falcon 9, adding two first stages to it and cross connecting the propellant at the base. It’s not trivial. But it’s not like superhard either. Compared to, say, going from Falcon 1 to Falcon 9, Falcon 9 to Falcon Heavy is a much smaller step.
Where is the market for launching 20 times a year?
Bear in mind in 2015, that’s when we’re doing four launches a year for Iridium. If we’ve got four cargo missions to station, that’s eight. Hopefully we’re doing commercial crew, that’s at least two. Then we’re starting to really crack the commercial market starting with the SES launch, and there’s a number of others I think we’ll announce this year. Between U.S. Air Force missions, NASA exploration missions and commercial GEO I think we could get another 10-ish. If we had five commercial GEOs of Falcon Heavy-class, which is only a quarter of the market, one or two NASA exploration missions and three or four Air Force missions we’d get to 20.
How are you ramping up your production capabilities?
The test facility in Texas has more than doubled. In the Hawthorne area we’ve been steadily acquiring buildings around us. We’re now cumulatively around 700,000 square feet (63,000 square meters), up from around 500,000 square feet. We are organizing the factory into distinct production cells, so there are stations where parts move from one station to the next as they gradually get more complex. We’re improving the degree of automation in terms of tank manufacturing. Right now we do the welds and then we manually scan the welds ultrasonically for any defects and then we analyze that weld and only when we complete the analysis do we move to the next. An example of something we’re doing is the weld will be scanned in real time. So as soon as you complete the weld you also complete the quality assurance on the weld.
But how do you go from building one or two rockets a year to building 20 rockets a year?
I don’t know; how do you go from building zero rockets a year to building two?
You were over two years late in launching the first COTS mission.
In the space business that’s on time.
Skeptics still argue that it’s extremely difficult to move from research and development to production on a scale you’re talking about.
It’s worth noting that even with the Merlin-1C engine our production rate right now is sort of four to five vehicles per year. If we just produced at maximum rate without going to 24/7 — just one-and-a-half to two shifts — and the factory didn’t make any producibility upgrades, four or five, maybe six vehicles a year. Our engine production rate, commensurate with that, is sort of 40 to 60. And if you wanted to increase the rate without increasing efficiency, that’s easy; you just get a bigger building and rinse and repeat. We’re going to be a lot smarter about how we do things so as to produce a lot more with only a moderate increase in footprint. So if we double the effective size of the factory but significantly improve the production processes I think we can get to an order of magnitude improvement in rate.
Is the additional COTS money NASA is providing in 2011 geared toward your proposal to combine the second and third COTS demo flights?
No, the COTS augmentation is really just for a whole series of additional tests that NASA wanted us to do.
NASA says it is.
They do? Maybe some of those [tests are for that purpose]. Orbital Sciences is getting an equivalent amount for its COTS effort. It’s certainly helpful to accelerate things and reduce risk — things that we would say we don’t really need to do. But NASA really wants to do that. NASA also wants more ground test articles for various reasons. It’s just if there are sort of bells and whistles, our original contract didn’t contemplate that, so then it just costs more to do that.
What can you tell me about the upgrade under way to the Falcon 9’s Merlin-1C engine and how it will streamline production?
The hardest part of the engine to mass produce is the electro-plating of nickel cobalt on the chamber. We create this thick metal jacket that takes the primary stress of the pressure vessel and it’s plated one molecule at a time. Plating is about the slowest way you can make a metal thing. With the Merlin-1D we take a metal jacket that is explosively formed. We take a metal sheet that’s in a cylindrical form and put it in a bucket of water, effectively. Sort of a concrete pool. And you set off an explosive and the jacket just goes “boohmp” and forms to the outer side walls into a jacket shape, so you have a mold, effectively. And then you just put the jacket on the chamber and braise it on. You can do several a day. We have a fully integrated engine and it’s being test-fired right now. There’s really not a lot of question marks remaining about the Merlin-1D.
What is the capability of the Falcon 9 with the Merlin-1D vs. the Merlin-1C?
It depends on how much sandbagging you want to give on the Falcon 9 performance but it’s in the roughly 13-tons-to-low-Earth-orbit capability with the upgraded Falcon 9. The current Falcon 9 is in the 10- to 11-metric-ton class.
When will the upgraded engine fly?
The Merlin-1D will fly mid-2012. It could be a Commercial Resupply Services mission or it could be an Orbcomm mission, but it’ll be approximately flight seven.
How many Falcon 9s will fly this year?
Probably two — COTS and the first Commercial Resupply Services mission. Orbcomm will fly on the COTS mission.
What are your sources of cash over the next few years to ramp up production?
All of our contracts have milestone payments. So as we get closer and closer to launch our cash increases, because we’re covering more and more milestones. So our projection is we don’t need to raise significant capital to achieve our production volumes because they’re effectively paid for by our customers in sufficient time for us to ramp up production.
Do you expect to conduct an initial public offering (IPO) of SpaceX stock by the end of next year?
With IPOs, there are all sorts of complications that can arise. Although we won’t need to sell much; we don’t need to raise money. It might be wise to raise money just to make sure — let’s say we have a series of launch failures or something drastic that takes out a good chunk of the launch pad. I think there’s a good chance we’ll do an IPO late next year. If it’s not next year the worst-case scenario would be the year after.