Instead of putting a nuclear weapon on a rocket, lets put John Glenn instead! Maybe that’s how we first started putting men into space.
When SpaceX first got started, they didn’t have nuclear weapons and Nazis to fall back on, they just had Elon Musk and maracas. Today they’re the most successful private space launch company in the world, pioneering new technologies to make spaceflight cheaper, more sustainable in reigniting people’s interest in space travel.
How they get here and what comes next, while the Falcon heavy get all the attention lately, and definitely adds more functionality than SpaceX’s services, and we’re looking forward to more Falcon Heavy launches later this year.
The Falcon 9 is the so tried-and-true workhorse of the SpaceX business model. Understanding how the Falcon 9 came to be gives you a real insight into the company’s overall mission and gives you an idea of where they’re going to be going in the future.
Number one priority with SpaceX is to make space travel more affordable, so the Falcon 9 was built from the beginning with reusability in mind. We know this long-term strategy is to get humanity off this planet and make it a multiplanetary species, starting with Mars, but that’s an impossible thing to do as long as traveling up into space is prohibitively expensive.
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We want spaceflight as cheap and routine as air travel, the point that you know how expensive would it be to fly somewhere if every time you landed they threw the plane away. That’s basically what we do with space travel right now.
The Saturn 5 is a marvel of engineering but out of this entire thing, the only part that comes back to earth is not reusable, which is one of the many reasons why we’ve never been back to the moon.
If we’re never going to get to Mars or have a lunar base we need a vehicle that’s reusable, so it all has to start with reusability. Actually, before you have reusability you need to have usability, so the first one in the Falcon lineup is the Falcon one.
Falcon one did five flights from 2006 to 2009, it’s a two-stage rocket standing 22 meters tall, with a 1.5-meter diameter, and in case you were wondering, yes, Elon named it after the Millennium Falcon, but it had a pretty rough start.
The first flight in March 2006 began to pitch wildly 33 seconds after takeoff eventually exploding. The second flight in March 2007 carried a satellite for DARPA and it too failed, though it did have a successful first stage, the second stage engine cut off too early and didn’t reach orbit. Unlike the first one, it was successful for long enough for them to gather a bunch of data so it was actually considered a mild success.
Both the first two flights use the Merlin 1:8 engine, making 0 out of two flights, and that would stay its record forever because it was never used again. Falcon one flight 3 took off in August 2008, this time with the Merlin 1c engine which performed perfectly, but some residual fuel left at the time of the second stage separation caused the two to collide against each other, and the mission failed. It included a few satellites including some Nanosatellites for NASA.
Next was the absolute make-or-break time for SpaceX, this entire venture was privately funded by Elon Musk, and with three failures under his belt some of the contracts started to dry up and the money was running out.
if they didn’t make this next one work they were going to go bankrupt.
But one thing SpaceX does probably better than anybody else is they collect data.
To this very day at every single launch they collect a mountain of data and analyze it relentlessly, trying to find ways to improve the system, and they learned from these three failures so just a couple of months later, with everything on the line, they finally got it right with the fourth launch of Falcon one.
This one didn’t carry an actual payload, just a boilerplate to simulate the weight of a payload, at this point they just basically needed to prove that it worked, so instead of putting more satellites on there they were just going to test this thing out, and it did work.
They followed the same trajectory as the last one, the only change they made was that they altered the timing between the first stage separation and the second engine burn starting, and it worked. There was only one more flight of the Falcon one in July 2009, and this one also nailed it.
Proving that the fourth launch wasn’t just a fluke, and actually putting a payload into orbit, SpaceX was officially in the game.
But the Falcon 1 was always more of a demonstration vehicle, it was always planned to move on to something bigger, and early on the plan was to move on to one called the Falcon 1e, but it was determined to be not necessary, so it was scrapped.
At one point there was a plan for a Falcon 5, she would have five engines on it but that was also scrapped because what Elon wanted from the beginning was to slap nine of these suckers together and create a Falcon nine.
The Falcon 9 had been development since 2006 and was partially funded by a NASA program called the commercial orbital transportation services or Co TS program.
This was designed to help fund the development of private launch vehicles, to run resupply missions to the ISS.
This first version of the Falcon 9 version 1.0 stood 47.8 meters tall, more than twice as tall as the Falcon one, featured nine Merlin 1c engines that could launch 10,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit, compared to 570 with the Falcon 1, which puts it in a class of rocket known as a medium heavy launcher.
Version 1.0 is smaller than the rockets that would follow it and had no reusability whatsoever, the launch of the Falcon 9 version 1.0 was on June 4th, 2010, it carried a boilerplate Dragon capsule and got within 1% of its target orbit, which is pretty much as good as it gets for a first launch.
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They were able to get something into orbit with the Falcon 9, that’s good, but in order to be a part of the NASA COTS program, they needed to jump through a few hoops in order to get the contract. To actually service ISS would involve three missions, the first mission would prove that the Dragon capsule was structurally sound and capable in space, the second mission would perform a series of maneuvers that would bring the capsule within close range of the ISS, and then prove some rendezvous capabilities.
The third mission would actually berth with the space station.
The first mission was called demo flight one and it launches on December 8th, 2010, carrying an operational Dragon capsule. Over the course of two orbits, they tested the attitude control through the Draco thrusters, the guidance telemetry, and navigation systems before re-entering the atmosphere and splashing down near Mexico.
You can find this Dragon capsule proudly on display in the SpaceX headquarters today. Fun fact — the dummy payload on that mission was a giant wheel cheese.
It’ll be another 18 months before SpaceX got a shot at the demo flight 2, but in the meantime, they tried to convince NASA to let them combine demo flight 2 and demo flight 3, basically kill two birds with one stone.
Arguing that if demo flight 2 went well and all the rendezvous maneuvers went the way they were supposed to, why not just go ahead and try demo flight 3 and go-ahead dock with the space station. Eventually NASA agreed to give it a try and on May 22nd 2012 SpaceX launched demo flight 2, and over the next two days it navigated toward the space station, performed rendezvous maneuvers, tested its solar panels grappling fixture and proximity sensors, amongst other things.
Having nailed all the procedures, NASA gave them a go and SpaceX moved in on the space station, once the capsule was about nine meters away astronaut Don Pettit grabbed the capsule with the station’s robotic arm and pulled it in. by the way this is what berthing is as opposed to docking. Docking is where two spacecraft directly connect with each other, and with berthing, they grab it with the robotic arm and pull it in.
On May 26 they open the hatch and for the first time in history, a private spacecraft had docked with the space station. Don Pettit would later remark on how it had a new car smell, SpaceX was officially awarded a commercial resupply mission contract or CRM contract, with 13 resupply missions to the ISS.
This changed everything, the Falcon 9 version 1.0 had two more flights, making five total, all of them were successful and one of them actually had one of the engines go out in the launch but the other eight made up for it, which proved the value of the redundancy in the engine design.
But now that they proved the falcon dragon system could do the job, it was time to focus on the reusability issue. The next phase of the Falcon program was all about testing and perfecting the landing technique, so between 2012 and 2013 SpaceX developed two different vehicles, the Falcon 1.1, which is a larger version of the Falcon 9 with more fuel for landing and a little thing called the grasshopper.
This was a test vehicle that was actually made out of version 1.0 spare parts, and it was tested out at the SpaceX facility in McGregor Texas.
Their goal with the grasshopper was to perfect vertical takeoff and landing, they wanted to create a rocket that could land with the precision of a helicopter over the course of the year in 2012 and 2013 SpaceX engineers did a series of tests starting from just a three-second hop to a 744-meter climb, they tested maneuver in the wind, they tested lateral movements and more, to get their landing algorithms just right.
At the same time, they built version 1.1 which was significantly larger than the 1.0, standing 68 meters tall and 3.8 meters in diameter, or 12 feet in diameter. They also changed out the engines from the square configuration to a circular pattern they call the octa Webb, which they’ve kept to this day, and the 1.1 used a new Merlin 1d engine that gave the vehicle over 5,800 kilonewtons of thrust, or the ability to launch 13,000 kilograms, that’s 28,000 pounds into low-earth orbit.
The first version 1.1 launched in September 2013 and continued to be used until 2016, they launched a total of 15 flights, 14 of which were successful. They added landing legs for the first time in April 2014 and the grid fins first showed up in January 2015.
They tested landing the 1.1 over the ocean, sometimes just letting it come down to a stop on top of the ocean then tipping over, sometimes trying to land it on a drone ship. One of these landings actually worked but SpaceX collected a mountain of data and then applied that to the algorithm to make it better.
Back in Texas, the grasshopper was retired and followed by the Falcon 9 reusable development vehicle, or the f9r dev. This one was built on a much larger 1.1 frame and it was used mostly to test the grid fins, and seeing if they could reach hypersonic velocity by taking up a thousand meters and dropping it. from all of these testing and trials SpaceX built the next version of the Falcon 9 called the Falcon 9 full thrust, or sometimes called the Falcon 9 1.2, sometimes called the Falcon 9 block 3, it has lots of names.
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This will be the first version of the Falcon 9 that we’re going to actually try to land with upgraded computer and guidance systems, and a supercooled fuel system which gave it 30% more thrust. They decide on the maiden voyage of the Falcon full thrust to try landing it back on land and here’s where things started getting interesting.
First launch of this new Falcon 9 model landed flawlessly after nine years of development.
They finally pulled it off and only four months later they were able to land for the first time on a drone ship, and since then they’ve been able to do it 22 out of 24 times, and on March 30th of 2017 they relaunched a first stage for the first time showing that yes, they can be completely reusable.
Incremental improvements led to the block 4 which is their current model of Falcon 9, and in April they’re going to launch for the first time the block 5, which should be the final version.
The block 5 is going to be designed to be more quickly reusable, SpaceX wants to eventually get to where they can turn around a rocket in just a few days. The biggest modifications in the block 5 include stronger landing legs a little bit more thrust and a few modifications that make it a little bit more quickly reusable, and of course in February of this year they launched for the first time the Falcon Heavy which gives them the ability to launch heavier objects into higher Earth orbit and beyond, but the real story here is the reusability.
The Falcon 9 is only 65% reusable because you can’t reuse a second stage, and that’s only when you can land the first stage. In a lot of cases the deployment requires that you have to travel further downrange which doesn’t leave enough fuel for a landing. The Falcon Heavy with its three Falcon cores is 90 percent reusable you still lose that second stage but the bulk of the machine is able to be used again. 90 percent is good, better than any other rocket out there or any other rocket ever for that matter.
SpaceX has been playing with ideas to recover the second stage for years now, but it would either require a heavy and expensive heat shield for orbital re-entry, or more fuel in a larger second stage to make it turn around and reverse, and be able to land.
It’s just not really possible in Falcon 9 systems, what they need is some kind of big second stage that can turn around and land, just like the first stage.
In the meantime, Falcon 9 will continue to be the workhorse of the SpaceX lineup. There are over 40 launches on the manifest going all the way out to 2021, everything from cargo missions to the ISS to satellite deployment and yes, manned missions hopefully starting this year on the Dragon 2 capsule.