I know it's been awhile since I posted anything, but due to the holidays and what not, I have been busy. Nonetheless, I want to take some time now to discuss a news story that I consider to be the most exciting published recently. I mentioned on my space page that I would try to provide some commentary and analysis of news regarding the space industry as I became aware of it. This will be my first entry in that series.
Summary of Story
This test flight marks the first time in history that a commercial space company developed a piece of hardware and brought it back to the surface of the Earth. Until now, only a few governments have managed this feat (USA, Russia, Japan, EU, and a few others). The other very important thing to note is that the Dragon capsule was designed to be man-rated. Ideally, the capsule will be used to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS, thus restoring the manned flight capabilities that will be lost when the space shuttle fleet is retired. More information about the Dragon capsule can be found here.
Finally, this marks the second flight of SpaceX's Falcon 9 booster. SpaceX has already launched a few Falcon 1 vehicles, which use the same rocket engine (Merlin engine, designed and developed by SpaceX) as the Falcon 9. The trick is, the Falcon 9 configured nine of the merlin engines in a square array to give the Falcon 9 more thrust compared to the smaller Falcon 1. Having two successful flights of a new launch vehicle is quite an accomplishment on SpaceX's part, especially for the small amount of money they have spent. More information about the Falcon 9 can be found here.
The video below, provided by Spaceflightnow, can be viewed for a peak at the Falcon 9 launch up through main engine cut-off (MECO).
Financial Impact on Space Access
This is a very important question to answer. As long as it costs thousands of dollars to launch each kilogram of mass into space ($10,000 / kg is a popular number to toss around), then space access will be limited only to powerful countries and extraordinarily wealthy individuals and institutions. If the cost per kilogram of mass delivered to orbit is lowered significantly over the next few decades, then human kind will truly be able to become a space faring species. Assuming that the average male weights about 200 lbs. or 90 kg, launch costs would need to be reduced to approximately $5.56 per kilogram to deliver a standard male to orbit for about $500, or the average cost of a plane ticket. This is a very far cry from the $10,000 dollar number mentioned above. The Falcon 9, and SpaceX as a company, promises to lower the costs to orbit significantly, albeit, not that far.
So what kind of financial impact will SpaceX actually have on the launch industry? Well, to start answering this question, I dug up an old study conducted by the military in February of 2001 here. This study involved real estimations regarding prices to launch on vehicles that were flying at the time. Once I got hold of that data, I needed to distinguish the launch systems that had been retired, and then adjust for inflation through 2010 by using the overall consumer price index data found here. I also wanted to include two launch systems that were absent due to the early nature of the study conducted; the Delta IV and Atlas V rockets, or the EELV services provided by the United Launch Alliance. Currently, these two rockets are the workhorses of the United States space fleet. In order to work those two systems into the study, I compiled the data for the Delta IV, found here, and the Atlas V, found here. The compiled and adjusted data is displayed in Table 1 below.
Currently the cheapest ride to space can be found on the Zenit 2 launch system at $3,169 per kilogram to LEO. This is a Ukrainian system that is currently being upgraded and revamped to the Zenit-2M. The 2M model is currently being tested, and is not yet available for commercial launches. Thus, it is difficult to say whether or not it will still provide dirt cheap access to space. Other competitors to the Falcon 9 include China's Long March 3B rocket, and the Atlas V and Delta IV vehicles. These trends are also depicted below in Figure 1.
The Long March 3B, dialing in at a price point of $5,184 per kilogram to LEO, also offers some competition to the Falcon 9. However, this booster is operated by China and, thus, utilizing it requires some fun political hoops to jump through. The only other competitive booster, the Sea Launch platform, is currently owned by a company (Sea Launch) which just went through bankruptcy and is in the process of recovery. This is partially due to some failed launches of the Sea Launch platform, which raises another very important question regarding SpaceX and the Falcon 9. How risky is it to launch on a new vehicle?
select launch systems. This data
counts, 'partial failures,' in the failures column.
So what does this tell us about the current cheap launch systems on the market? Well, overall, the cheapest launch systems do not currently exist in the U.S. United States customers must either go to a foreign agency for space access if they want to get a good price, or they can pay more money for more reliability on United States hardware. Each of these options presents its own problems. On one hand, a customer with a payload they want sent to space, has to go through the hassle of dealing with ITAR regulations when dealing with a foreign launch agency since most space rated hardware is categorized as armaments hardware. On the other hand, they can pay more money to launch on the EELV systems. However, the EELV launchers are also used to launch military payloads for the U.S. government and, thus, utilizing them may require a customer to bump up against problems regarding classified techincal details.
This is the exact conundrum that SpaceX is in a position to solve. Since it is a commercial company, their systems should not be classified under any government protections. Since they are a United States company, launching with their platform will not involve a mess of legal hoops that potential customers will have to jump through. So, while SpaceX does not (yet) offer the cheapest ride to space, they certainly should be abile to lower customers incurred costs of dealing with contracts, legal issues, and schedule slips due to red tape and needless bullshit. That is the true power that SpaceX is offering with the Falcon 9, not just cheap access to space, but cheap, simple, and domestic access to space.
Engineering Impact on Space Hardware
-- Slashdot User jpmorgan, UID: 517966 . Reference.
rocket engine. The picture is owned by SpaceX
and was provided via their website.
Apollo 11 as a payload. You can clearly see the
clustered F-1 engines on the bottom of the rocket.
Photo provided by NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center.
So is SpaceX's approach to cluster engine rocket design novel? No, not really. However, the Falcon family of rockets does bring the concept of simple, reusable rocket engines back to the United States rocket market. Rather than having to rely on multiple subcontractors for each engine, SpaceX has given itself the freedom of developing its own, in-house engine that can be utilized in dozens of different ways. This is a powerful concept that, while once lost in the art off rocket making in the United States, appears to be returning.
Political Impact of Dragon Demo
When President Obama introduced this suggestive budget to Congress, he was met with much opposition. The Constellation Program, which had been the focus of NASA's manned space program until the fall of 2010, was funded as a super heavy launch vehicle system that would replace the space shuttle program once it was closed in 2011. The Constellation program promised to unlock new worlds to mankind, providing enough lift capacity to transport humans to the moon and, possibly, to Mars. The problem with the Constellation program however was that it was over budget and very far behind schedule. This is why the Augustine Commission suggested its dismantlement in their final report. However, the vehicles proposed as part of the Constellation Program, the Ares V and Ares I, promised to use some hardware that was developed in the districts of various Congressional representatives and Senators (such as Richard Shelby and Orrin Hatch). These Congressmen were, therefore, vehemently opposed to the dismantlement of the Constellation program (as it would cost their constituents potential business from the U.S. government) despite its various budgetary, schedule, and safety issues. Some portions of Congress, therefore took it upon themselves to condemn all of the suggestions made by the Augustine Commission (and President Obama) with regards to the manned spaceflight programs at NASA. This criticism included much vehemence and ire directed at companies like SpaceX.
computer rendition depictes the Dragon capsule
preparing to berth with the ISS.
So what final impact does this test flight demonstration have on the political landscape of the space industry? Well, it is very simple. This flights goes to show that there is a new launch company on the scene that can give the established players a run for their money, thus disrupting the cash flow into various congressional districts where established players have set up their shops.
Overall Impact on Industry
This test flight demonstrates the human spirit's uncompromising and unwavering demand to explore the infinite, without fear, without hesitation, and without pause, but rather, with the clarity of vision, vigor, and gumption that can only be found in the human species!
-- Slashdot User Toze, UID: 1668155, in regards to reading about the successful Falcon 9 and Dragon test. Reference.