Monthly archives of “December 2010

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Meet the rockets that will be bigger than Apollo (SpaceX)

I’ve been a big fan of SpaceX for a long, long time. SpaceX has cracked the nut of becoming a viable, commercial heavy-lift aerospace company. They’ve redrawn the economics of the industry, and have a very bright future ahead of them. The last two recent successful launches of their Falcon 9 rocket have been spectacular!

Aside: I got my degree in aerospace engineering because I love the technology and the aspiration; I avoided working in the field because it’s too cyclical, corporate and dependent on government help.

But onwards and upwards…

Earlier this summer SpaceX made a few presentations outlining some of their future plans. And those plans are AWESOME. Here’s what they’ll be up to in the near term as they develop the Falcon X line of rockets:

FalconX.jpg

The current Falcon 9 rocket can get 10.5k kg into Low Earth Orbit. More tangibly, the Falcon 9 puts the equivalent to three and a half Hummer H2’s into orbit. Doing this requires nine first-stage engines and one second-stage engine.

SpaceX currently has the Falcon 9 Heavy rocket in development. This essentially straps on two additional first-stage sections for a total of 27 first-stage rocket engines! This is a healthy additional boost, and gets 32k kg into orbit. So if you ever wanted to compact eleven Hummer H2s and send them into orbit, this rocket can do it for you.

The Falcon 9 Heavy will also be able to lift more into orbit than Atlas V, Delta IV, or Ariane 5. There are only two systems on the drawing board that are potentially larger than this rocket, and they’re both Russian vehicles that don’t look likely to actually be built. (Of course it will cost you; $56million for a Falcon 9 and $95million for the Falcon 9 Heavy.)

But Space X is looking at developing a large new version of it’s first stage engine, Merlin. (These are speculative right now because it would take $1billion to develop the engine, but clearly thought out.) Powered by this engine, the rocket could put 38k kg into orbit.

Suddenly, this image gets very interesting:

FalconXX.jpg

This outlines how SpaceX could operate a Super-Heavy-Lift Launch System. The Falcon X Heavy could lift 125k kg into orbit, and the Falcon XX could lift 140k kg into orbit.

Within six months as the Space Shuttle program shuts down, there will be NO operational Super-Heavy-Lift system operational. And the largest consistently successful Super-Heavy-Lift system was the Saturn V rocket that sent the Apollo missions to the moon.

Where the Saturn V could lift 119k kg to orbit, the Falcon XX could potentially lift 140k kg to orbit. If successful, this would be the heaviest payload sent by man into space. (To complete the metaphor, it’s the same as lifting forty-seven Hummer H2s into orbit.)

Summary

I love the ambition of SpaceX, and that they’ve gone from nothing to multiple successful launches in less than a decade without any public funding. (Though they have had key public contracts to resupply the Space Station.) That they’ve designed it from a blank sheet, not being required to refit existing infrastructure or deal with an existing bloated bureaucracy is brilliant, and probably part of the reason they’ve been successful. Lean and mean…

Hopefully this gives you a sense of the future of the space part of the aerospace industry in the USA.