display | more...

All of Elon Musk's ventures tend to be built around a single central idea, a 'what if?' coupled with a 'here's how.' Space Exploration Technologies, a.k.a. SpaceX (pronounced "Space-Ecks") is no exception.

Founded on June 1, 2002 in El Segundo, CA, Space Exploration Technologies was initially funded with $100 million of Elon Musk's own capital. Its stated mission was to reduce the cost of space travel and thus exploration, paving the way to the exploration of Mars.

So far, so soundbite. Really, what SpaceX seems (to me, a complete outside observer) to be based on is the following relatively simple logic chain. However, as most anyone in the know will tell you, the biggest ideas are simple ones, and it's not having the idea, it's managing to execute on it. That logic chain runs approximately like this:

  • Space travel is very expensive.
  • Most of the cost of space travel is getting to LEO.
  • If we can get to LEO more cheaply, many more things become possible.
  • Reusable spacecraft is the obvious solution to 'more cheaply' using achievable engineering/science.
  • Spaceplanes have been recently proven to not be the answer right now.
  • Top-stack capsules are a proven space technology and relatively easy to manufacture (and are safer than side-stack).
  • The 50 years of manufacturing tech advances since the Mercury project means that these craft can be made more cheaply
  • The 50 years of control system advances since Mercury means that we might be able to reuse some or all of them.
Basically, that's it. The staple of 1930s through 1960s science fiction - the rocket ship that lands on its tail, made famous by everyone from Heinlein through Herge in Tintin's Destination Moon - is the basis for SpaceX. The technological basis, at least. The business case has additional help - namely, that since its inception, space travel has been the purview of government monopoly, which means that it is ripe for a young, small and hungry corporate entity to chew the belly out of the industry by using second-mover advantage. Basically, building on all the decades and billions of dollars of government research which is freely available to anyone who wants it.

That's not a dig. That's how it's supposed to work.

So SpaceX set out to find a cheaper way into space. It may be because Elon Musk was obsessed with setting foot on Mars; it might be because he was bored, who knows. Originally, though, SpaceX attempted to negotiate the purchase of obsolete ex-Soviet boosters for their launches, as the original method of making the launch cheaper. The purchase and plan fell through, and the story goes that on the flight back from Ukraine, Elon was famously scribbling math on scrap paper and finally said "Why can't we build them ourselves?" and thus was born SpaceX as we know it.

The company started out by doing some relatively smart things. It hired aerospace professionals. It hired NASA people. It hired space experts from other nations' agencies. It planned things in steps - from the outset, there were to be at least three phases of vehicle. The Falcon 1 was to be the proof of concept, a light launch vehicle which could reach high-arc trajectories with a heavy payload, or a low earth orbit with a very light one. It couldn't carry most commercially viable satellite payloads, but that was all right - it wasn't intended to be the moneymaker. As its name indicated, it was to be the first step, and would have a single Merlin engine - a test of the engine SpaceX was designing and would base its existence on.

The Falcon 1 was launched from a facility on Omelek Island, a part of Kwajalein Atoll. SpaceX refurbished a U.S. Government test facility for the launch of the Falcon 1 rockets, benefiting from both the proximity to the equator and the ease of using a launch site in a relatively empty part of the Pacific Ocean. Although they considered using the facility for upgraded versions of the Falcon 1 (The Falcon 1e) and possibly the follow-on Falcon 9, those plans were abandoned when SpaceX moved its main launch operations to Florida - leasing space at Cape Canaveral for Falcon 9 launches, and Kennedy Space Center pad 39A, which has seen both Apollo and Space Shuttle use, for the Falcon Heavy. As I write this node, the first such has been moved to the pad for static fire testing.

The much larger Falcon 9 booster, which as its name implies carries nine Merlin engines, came second. That would be the first booster big enough to carry their standardized payload, the Dragon spacecraft. Available in both cargo and, eventually, hopefully crewed variants, the standardized Falcon and Dragon components would permit the launch of midrange cargo masses and allow SpaceX to pursue NASA Commercial Resupply contracts - flying supplies to and from the International Space Station.

Finally, the same way the Falcon 9 would be a Falcon 1 with more (identical) engines, the Falcon Heavy would be a launch vehicle built using three Falcon 9 boosters locked together, permitting the launch of more massive payloads into much more energetic profiles - enough to take the Dragon to Mars.

The big and most showy difference that SpaceX would pursue, of course, is that of recovering their boosters - and doing so by landing them on their tails after flight. Although doing so limits the profiles that the vehicles can reach - because some fuel must be reserved for the flyback burn and the landing sequence - recovering the booster and more importantly its nine expensive-to-manufacture Merlin engines means that later flights of that same booster can be made much more cheaply.

Plus, it looks cool as hell.

In an attempt to get every last bit of flight profile out of the Falcon booster, SpaceX realized that they didn't need to save enough fuel to fly the booster back to the launch point if they had a stable platform far out at sea - they could use all the flyback burn fuel for primary mission, and then just make sure the platform was where it needed to be. This resulted in their equivalent of "Hans and Franz", the NASA Crawler-Transporters - the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ships, or ASDS, each named after a Ship Mind from Iain Banks' Culture series.

It worked, although it took them a number of attempts to make it work without losing ("exploding", "crashing", "toppling") the booster. The attempts thus captured on video were the source of much merriment and much admiration on the internet. The video of the first booster successfully landing on an ASDS was met with such a roar of approval from the company headquarters in Hawthorne, CA, where all employees gather outside the glass-walled Mission Control facility to watch the launch, that surely it was heard at Kennedy Space Center. Nerds love us some space travel.

Although their history has not been without mishaps - sometimes including what Elon has termed 'RUDs', for 'Rapid Unplanned Disassembly' - SpaceX is on track to launch the first test Falcon Heavy sometime in the near future. Its payload? Elon's personal original Tesla Roadster, destined (if this works) to enter a long-term orbit around the planet Mars - with its audio system playing Space Oddity by David Bowie as it goes. (Update: the test launch so far has been a success. The two side boosters flew back to CCAFS for a simultaneous landing; the payload, Roadster with space-suited driver dummy - named Starman - in place, is currently in a transfer orbit, awaiting its third scheduled burn. The Main Core failed to ignite on the way down (it may have run out of fuel) and impacted the water at approximately 300mph some 100 meters from the ASDS and there may have been some damage there.)

Whatever else you say about the man, he has élan.