LOGAN — In the wake of an accident that destroyed the Falcon 1 rocket less than a minute after its inaugural launch, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) is upgrading the vehicle’s health-monitoring software so company officials can better understand the rocket’s performance as they prepare for a second flight that could occur in November, but is more likely to slip into December.
“November is the plan,” said Elon Musk, chairman and chief executive officer of El Segundo, Calif. -based SpaceX. “Current expectations are that the launch will occur in November … although if I was a betting man, we’d start doing our first test firings in November and launch in December.”
Musk said he expects false-positive indications and aborts to occur in shaking out the system, leading up to the next planned launch.
The next Falcon 1 rocket will carry two NASA test articles: a low-cost Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System transmitter and an autonomous range destruct system package. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is the primary launch customer, Musk said, with the NASA payloads chosen by DARPA.
Recovered rocket debris has helped company officials sort things out, Musk said. The rocket landed on an island reef, coming to rest in pieces not far from the launch pad in about 1.2 meters of water.
“Almost no rocket debris was on the island except the satellite,” Musk said. The small experimental spacecraft called FalconSat-2 was crafted by cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Tossed free of the failed rocket, it slammed through the roof of an unoccupied storage shed on the island, crashing next to the shipping container used to transport it to Kwajalein.
“We initially thought there might have been a [launch] pad processing error,” Musk said. However, later investigation of the failure pointed to a small aluminum nut designed to hold a fuel pipe fitting in place had failed due to stress erosion cracking. That led to a kerosene leak causing the Falcon 1’s main engine to catch fire shortly after liftoff, with the vehicle failing shortly thereafter.
Musk said that the booster’s premier flight “was about the rocket not the satellite.”
The Falcon 1’s maiden blastoff accomplished 30 seconds of powered flight, prior to loss of the launcher.
While the flight failed before second-stage ignition, Musk said it did successfully showcase the launch pad hold-down system, the rocket’s guidance and navigation equipment, and the booster’s engine and thrust vector control, among other items.
“We have perfect telemetry,” Musk continued, “all the way down to the damn thing hitting the reef.”
Still, there are other aspects of the rocket that will remain unknown until the next flight.
“Without doubt, it would have been much better to have at least gotten to second- stage ignition. That would have proven out the separation,” Musk said.
The company also continues to work on a more powerful rocket, known as the Falcon 9. Musk said the next big event for Falcon 9 is completion of the booster’s large first stage tank, which is expected to be achieved in the next two to three months. The tooling to build the launcher is on track as is a thrust frame for handling the rocket’s cluster of engines, he said.
While it was initially difficult to set up a launch operation on Kwajalein, things have smoothed out, Musk said.
As for overall cost spent to date on Kwajalein, “I shudder to think,” Musk said, noting it is a figure presently somewhere on the order of $10 million. A roughly equal amount has been spent on preparing the planned SpaceX launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif .
“Kwajalein is working out well … we’re pretty well dialed in there,” Musk said. As for the firm’s Vandenberg launch site, SpaceX has been advised by the U.S. Air force that they can launch from their own site once they have had a successful flight from somewhere else.
There has been pressure placed on the company’s use of its own pad due to a neighboring Lockheed Martin Atlas 5 launch complex. “Every time they talk to me it gets more valuable … a couple of hundred-million dollars every time we talk. The last I heard was about $600 million dollars … some crazy number,” Musk said.
“We can launch from another launch pad at Vandenberg without having a successful launch somewhere else,” Musk explained. But doing so would entail another round of construction costs, he said, and paying for associated environmental impact studies that are “outrageously difficult.”
Musk said that his personal investment in SpaceX to date is slightly more than a $100 million.
“We’ll go public at some point and I think the evaluation will be good … but no rush to go public or anything. We’ll probably bring in some external funding next year,” Musk said, “but we’ll see … it may not be necessary.”
He said the company is on track to be cash flow positive by the end of the year.