Elon Musk founded Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) in 2002. Its stated business objective was the development of launch services for a fraction of the cost of the then-available commercial launch providers – to the greatest extent practicable, they would create reusable pieces of its launch system, thereby greatly lowering the cost of space access. Toward that end, SpaceX sponsored the development of its own launch vehicle and engines, using a vertically integrated business model in which SpaceX would design, fabricate, prepare and operate a launch system.
Alan Boyle’s recent review of commercial efforts to supply the International Space Station naturally included coverage of the successful flight of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon’s delivery demonstration. The article focused on the way commercial space is financed, specifically how NASA is sponsoring the development of some of these capabilities. This financial arrangement is the basis for a point repeatedly voiced by critics of the heralded vision of “New Space” replacing “government” space – a company like SpaceX is not actually commercial in the traditional free market sense, but simply another government-funded contractor using a different procurement model.
Falcon 1 was the first rocket developed by SpaceX. It is a two-stage launch vehicle capable of putting a metric ton (1000 kg) into low Earth orbit. Falcon 1 uses a single Merlin, a SpaceX-developed, LOX-kerosene rocket engine producing ~570,000 newtons of thrust (for comparison, a single Shuttle main engine burns LOX-hydrogen fuel and produces about 2,300,000 newtons of thrust). The Falcon 1 was designed to put relatively small satellites into low earth orbit. With such payload capacity, it is also capable of sending 100-200 kg microsats beyond LEO, into cislunar space.
Much of the private start-up capital for SpaceX was used to develop the Falcon 1. They also received some government funding from other than NASA. The Department of Defense (DoD) had need for reliable, quick, and cheap space access for small payloads. To that end, SpaceX received funding from several DoD entities, including several million dollars from the U.S. Air Force under a program to develop launch capability for DARPA (a defense research agency). Space X was given access to and the use of DoD launch facilities at the Reagan Test Site (formerly Kwajalein Missile Range) in the Marshall Islands.
The early days of Falcon 1 development were not pretty. The first launch failed after 25 seconds of flight. The second flight successfully launched and staged, but did not reach orbit. After the third attempt at flight failed during staging, a review board looked in detail at SpaceX’s launch processing stream and made recommendations for some significant changes. The next launch was successful in putting a dummy payload into orbit. In July 2009, six years after Falcon 1 development had begun, SpaceX achieved its first (and so far, only) commercial space success with the launch and orbit of the Malaysian RazakSAT imaging satellite on a Falcon 1 launch.
Typically when a space company finally achieves a long-sought success, it moves rapidly to exploit the new vehicle’s operational status and begins to aggressively market and sell its new launch service. However, no Falcon 1 launch has occurred since the success of RazakSAT. A visit to the SpaceX web site describes the Falcon 1 vehicle, but at the bottom of the page it states that a Falcon 1 launch is no longer available for purchase. Instead, small, one-ton class payloads will be accommodated in the future through “piggyback” rides on the new, Falcon 9 medium-class launch vehicle.
For a company to spend six years and start up money developing a needed launch system, only to abandon it just as success and profit is at hand, is difficult to sort through. One could be forgiven for imagining that the development of the Falcon 1 as a commercial launch system was never intended but rather a pretext to flight qualify the pieces (specifically the Merlin 1 engine) used in the nine-engine cluster that powers the Falcon 9 launcher. Interestingly, others have noted that the now-cancelled NASA Constellation Ares I launch vehicle (“The Stick”), purportedly designed to launch the new Orion spacecraft to LEO, likewise appeared to be more of a development effort than a flight project, in that its various pieces (e.g., cryogenic upper stage, five-segment SRB) were all needed to build the large Ares V heavy lift rocket.
Meanwhile, customers in need of low-cost options for launching small payloads are out of luck. Falcon 9 has yet to launch an ounce of commercial payload and Falcon 1 is not for sale. Of course, one can launch small satellites using Orbital’s Taurus launch vehicle, but its ~$50-70 M cost and recent record of unreliability (e.g., the Glory satellite launch failure) engender neither comfort nor confidence. More significantly, after investing in the R&D effort of a new, unproven company that was offering a low cost, small launch vehicle, SpaceX’s original DoD customers, banking on the creation of a quick, inexpensive capability to launch small satellites, saw their support of Falcon 1 go by the board. It appears that SpaceX dropped their initial operational vehicle for the promotion and promise of far more ambitious and distant goals.
That template seems to work for them – NASA has “invested” more than $500 million in the Falcon 9 over the last five years. Now, SpaceX holds court to advance their founder’s Mars fantasies and plans for a Falcon “heavy” launch vehicle – designed and marketed as sending very large payloads into space, at unbelievably low prices. (As an aside, I thought that a New Space article of faith is that heavy lift is a boondoggle and that fuel depots are the way to go beyond LEO.)
When New Space advocates characterize old NASA contractors, legacy launch companies and politicians with NASA centers in their districts as “pigs at the trough of government funding,” they’d be wise to watch out for a “pig” donning falcon feathers. Debate, like competition is good and helpful but only useful when advocates honestly pitch their abilities, services, products and intentions. Money is an important consideration, however our nation’s ability to compete in the arena of space must be the overriding concern. In light of the current situation, that ability is slipping further and further away. We need to honestly assess what we’re buying before nothing remains of our decades long investment and leadership role in space.