As early as May, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), an aerospace startup company in El Segundo, California, hopes to launch its first small rocket called the Falcon I to Low Earth Orbit. Rocket company startups are nothing new, but the interesting aspect of SpaceX is that it appears that the founders of the company have a solid plan to undercut the American rocket industry on price by about 70%.
Here's a picture of the Falcon I in front of the FAA building in Washington, D.C. In December of last year, they hauled the rocket from California using a tractor trailer and public highways/freeways. They say that they didn't have much problem with securing the permits to haul the rocket, which amazes me. Unfortunately, I didn't get down to see the rocket at that time.
SpaceX is selling launches on the Falcon I for about $6 million apiece for a maximum 1,400 pound payload to Low Earth Orbit. That works out to about $4,300 per pound. This compares very favorably to its closest American competition, Orbital Science's Pegasus XL, which is priced at $13.5 million for a maximum 1,000 pound payload, or roughly $14,000 per pound to Low Earth Orbit. This will even undercut the Russians, who launch the START rocket for $5,400 per pound to Low Earth Orbit. The US government will not use Russian rockets, so the Falcon I is expected to take a large chunk of the government business at this weight class. Further, offering a rocket launch from the continental United States should prove attractive to American commercial customers.
How do they plan to offer such low-priced launches on the Falcon I? Basically, they are using tried and true technology, upgraded to today's standards, and automating the launch process as much as possible. They designed, manufactured, and received regulatory approval for the Falcon I with about two dozen employees who knew how to design and make rockets. All in about one and a half years. Here's a picture of their assembly line.
The rocket technology hearkens back to the Apollo program. The Falcon I uses the inexpensive and reliable combination of kerosene and liquid oxygen for propulsion. The first stage is constructed of aluminum and the second stage of an aluminum-lithium alloy. The new technology includes a flight computer, which uses common modern electronics and looks to my eye like it could be constructed for about $750 per copy. Here's a picture of the flight computer, which looks like 5 inches by 5 inches. SpaceX claims that this board has much more capabilities than the flight computer of the Saturn V (the Apollo rocket), even though the Saturn V's flight computer was the size of a house and I'm sure cost tens of millions of dollars per copy! You can be certain that this board is much, much more reliable.
SpaceX is already taking orders for a larger rocket with 5 engines in the first stage called the Falcon V, which would launch 10,000 pounds to Low Earth Orbit for about $12 million, or $1,200 per pound. That would be a revolutionary price that even the Russians couldn't hope to match by a long shot. They hope to launch the first Falcon V in 2005 and have one customer signed up. It will be only one of two or three American rockets, including the Space Shuttle, to be man-rated, or having specifications suitable for manned missions.
Anyway, even though a lot of startup rocket companies have tried and failed to do what SpaceX is trying to do, I think we should cheer them on. It would be great to work with these guys! The space startups with which I have been involved have demonstrated how difficult it is to get a real product to market in the space business, so I appreciate their efforts.
Update 4/24/04: Space News is reporting that the maiden launch of the Falcon I has been delayed from May until the end of September. Launch delays are very frequent in the rocket business, so we shouldn't be overly worried. However, it does push SpaceX about 1 year off of its original development planning. For a risky start-up business such as SpaceX, the rate you use to discount an investment can be upwards of 25% - 40% per annum. Because of this, the delay adds very substantially to the costs of development in the business case for SpaceX. Government-funded rocket development programs -- what we have seen exclusively to date -- don't have to worry about such stuff.
Update 5/16/04: The U.S. Military Launch Manifest has the maiden launch of the Falcon I scheduled for August.