HOUSTON — Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) will attempt its second launch of the Falcon 1 rocket in late January or early February, SpaceX Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk said here Dec. 5.
The El Segundo, Calif.-based company previously had been targeting December or early January for the upcoming launch, a demonstration flight funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
The first DARPA demonstration flight, conducted in March from the company’s private launch complex on the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, achieved 30-seconds of powered flight before an engine fire traced back to a corroded nut brought the mission to an abrupt and premature end.
During his presentation, Musk offered no explanations for the possible delay until February but had previously said that launch range conflicts were likely to push the launch out of December.
In a subsequent e-mail, however, Musk downplayed the significance of his latest public launch forecast. “I speculated that perhaps launch could occur in [February], but that doesn’t mean anything,” he wrote.
“The launch will occur when we’ve done everything we can to ensure its success and no sooner,” he continued. “The schedule currently shows January. However, until the vehicle passes all pre-launch checks, no one can accurately predict when launch will actually take place.”
Musk also said in the e-mail that a more robust vehicle health monitoring system put in place since the first launch likely will cause multiple false aborts before the rocket finally gets off the ground. “However, we could also get lucky and launch on the first time through. That’s where the uncertainty comes from and why the launch date cannot be predicted with accuracy.”
He said all Falcon 1 hardware needed for the upcoming launch would be in place on the island the week of Dec. 11.
In parallel to preparing for its next Falcon 1 launch, SpaceX also is getting ready for a January preliminary design review for Dragon, a ballistic capsule the company is developing with $278 million in assistance from NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration program.
Musk praised the COTS program as potentially “one of the best NASA programs ever,” saying “it holds the potential to really save the space station.”
“The national budget is going to get really squeezed and there’s not going to be a lot of money to support the space station” without the low-cost solutions being fostered by COTS, he predicted.
SpaceX intends to launch Dragon to the international space station on the Falcon 9, a nine-engine rocket the company is under contract to launch for the first time in 2008 as part of a classified launch for an unidentified U.S. government customer.
Musk said it was “still unclear” whether the first Falcon 9 launch will go out of Kwajalein or Cape Canaveral, Fla. He said SpaceX was making the necessary technical and regulatory preparations for either option. “We’re dual-pathing it,” he said.
Musk told attendees of the Second Space Exploration Conference here that SpaceX will produce 30 rocket-booster engines in 2007. A static Falcon 9 multi-engine firing is slated to take place in March, he said.
As SpaceX’s production activities ramp up, the approximately 250-employee company is starting to outgrow its current 9,290.3-square-meter design and manufacturing facility in El Segundo. Musk said SpaceX will move into a 46,451.5-square-meter manufacturing facility in six months.
Musk appeared on a panel with his fellow COTS competitor, Rocketplane Kistler President Randy Brinkley. That Oklahoma City-based company has a $207 million contract with NASA to demonstrate that the K-1 reusable rocket can be used to resupply the international space station.
Brinkley said the K-1 is 75 percent completed by mass and will launch for the first time in 2008.
Brinkley said the Oklahoma City-based company sees a $4 billion a year market for the K-1 over the next five years. In addition to space station resupply flights, Brinkley said there are opportunities for the K-1 in commercial and government satellite launch and U.S. Air Force-sponsored so-called responsive space activities.