Falcon 9 set for maiden launch

Downplaying expectations, the founder of SpaceX, one of the companies NASA is counting on to help resupply the International Space Station after the shuttle's retirement, said Thursday he believes the maiden flight of the new Falcon 9 rocket Friday has a 70 percent to 80 percent chance of succeeding.

"However, I should point out that is less than the probability of success in Russian roulette," Elon Musk, the co-founder of Paypal, told reporters. "Remember that scene from 'The Deer Hunter?' That's tomorrow. But not quite as likely."

The two-stage Falcon 9 rocket, carrying a dummy Dragon cargo module, is scheduled for its maiden launch from complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station during a four-hour launch window opening at 11 a.m. EDT. Forecasters are calling for 60 percent chance of good weather, improving to 70 percent favorable on Saturday.

The Falcon 9 rocket at launch complex 40 during initial pad
checks late last year. (Photo: SpaceX)

"There is a lot of anticipation by all the people here at SpaceX," said Ken Bowersox, a former shuttle commander who now works for Musk as vice president for astronaut safety and mission assurance. "It's a really big launch for the company. We're trying not to let that excitement and anticipation bias our judgment."

Said Musk: "Everyone at this point feels pretty confident. There's very little we can do to improve the rocket as far as reliability is concerned. We've done everything we could possibly think of."

SpaceX, short for Space Exploration Technologies Corp., has not released any details about the countdown, ascent milestones or performance objectives, other than to say the dummy Dragon simulator is bound for a 155.3-mile-high circular orbit tilted 34.5 degrees to the equator.

The launch will be carried live in a company webcast anchored from SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., but television coverage is not being provided. NASA is honoring a request by the company not to release any video from its own cameras and tracking systems at the nearby Kennedy Space Center.

"We will report events as they happen, but are not providing a score sheet that our numerous enemies can use against us to nitpick what will hopefully be a great flight," Musk told Spaceflight Now earlier. "This is the first flight of a new vehicle, so there will necessarily be differences between predictions and reality."

The heavily instrumented 12-foot-wide Falcon 9 rocket stands 154 feet tall and weighs about 735,000 pounds. It's nine first-stage Merlin engines, burning RP-1 kerosene rocket fuel with liquid oxygen, will generate more than 1 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, firing for about three minutes. The second stage is powered by a single Merlin engine that will fire about six minutes.

As with all rockets launched from the Air Force Eastern Range, the Falcon 9 is equipped with a self-destruct system in case things go wrong. Getting the flight termination system certified took longer than planned, but Musk said he expected final approval Thursday.

"This is very much a test flight of the Falcon 9," he told reporters Thursday. "It's analogous to sort of the beta testing of some new technology. The payload in this case is the structural test article of our Dragon spacecraft. It'll give us good aero data, environments data, vibration, shock, G loading, that kind of thing. But really, it's about testing the launch vehicle. Does the first stage work? And you can break that down into first stage propulsion, structures, thermal, avionics, the guidance.

"Then you move to the upper stage. Do the two stages separate correctly, does the upper stage start, does it acquire its target vector, does the guidance, navigation software and electronics work? How does it perform in vacuum, how does it perform in the radiative environment of space, in that initial zero G period between stage separation and second stage start? And then just in terms of the specific impulse, what's the performance of the engines, propellant depletion, just the core functions of the vehicle?"

He said 100 percent success would mean reaching the planned orbit.

"But I think, given this is a test flight, whatever percentage of getting to orbit we achieve would still be considered a good day," Musk added. "I think even if we prove out just that the first stage functions correctly, that's a good day for a test. That's a great day if both stages work correctly."

Asked what he worried about the most, Musk said "stage separation may be sort of the scariest moment."

"Stage separation and second stage start, that's probably what I worry about the most," he said. "We spent a lot of time testing that and trying to design something that was redundant and certain to separate and restart. But generally speaking, whenever you've got a change of state in flight, that's where things get riskiest."

SpaceX is building the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo modules to deliver supplies to the International Space Station and to bring equipment and experiment samples back to Earth. The initial test flight Friday was funded by SpaceX, but the company plans three subsequent test flights under a Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, or COTS, contract with NASA.

Musk said Thursday a second Falcon 9 rocket carrying an operational Dragon spacecraft will be launched later this summer on the first NASA-sponsored flight, known as COTS-1. A second flight, originally planned for later this year, will be delayed until the second quarter of 2011, Musk said.

But in a major change, SpaceX has proposed launching the COTS-2 spacecraft on an actual resupply mission to the space station. The company originally planned to make the first rendezvous on the third COTS mission but Musk said it made more sense to move ahead with an actual rendezvous and to use the third flight as an operational backup.

NASA has not yet formally approved the change of plans.

"This launch (Friday) is about testing the rocket," Musk said. "Flight two is about testing the Dragon spacecraft that we've developed, and that flight is probably sometime this summer. The Dragon will not go to the space station on flight two, it'll go to the space station ... on flight three. This is something we haven't sort of been all that clear about, but I think it's probably worth mentioning.

"There was some press about a delay in our second Dragon flight, which will be our third Falcon 9 flight. Actually, an important point was missed, perhaps, by the press. We are actually intending to go to the space station on the second flight of Dragon. So that would be sometime next year, most likely in the second quarter of next year."

After the three demonstration flights, SpaceX hopes to begin space station resupply missions under a $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Service contract covering 12 fights.

Orbital Sciences Corp. also is developing an unmanned cargo craft under NASA's COTS/CRS program that is expected to fly next year. But SpaceX has generated most of the commercial space publicity in the wake of the Obama administration's proposed shift to commercial rockets for station resupply and, eventually, crew transport to low-Earth orbit.

During the teleconference Thursday, Musk repeated his belief that SpaceX could deliver a manned version of the Dragon spacecraft within three years of receiving a contract from NASA.

"We have designed Falcon 9/Dragon to meet the published NASA human rating standards," he said. "There's only one major development item we need to complete, which is the launch escape system. Our internal timeline is about a two-year development for that launch escape system. We add an additional year of schedule margin on top of that to account for the unknowns.

"So we believe, we're very confident in being able to say that three years from when we are handed a contract to deliver astronauts to the space station, that is when we'll be able to do it. If that were to occur at the end of this year, then at the end of 2013 is when we could begin delivering astronauts."

Many space agency insiders have been critical of Musk's optimism, arguing that development problems almost certainly will cause delays and drive up costs. Musk dismisses such criticism, saying "I feel sort of like a political punching bag or whipping boy, I suppose. It's been unfortunate in that regard."

"The opponents of the commercial approach have taken a very calculated strategy of attacking SpaceX while ignoring the Atlas and Delta rockets that are also commercial and have had now, I think, 31 or 32 consecutive successes," he said. "Because obviously, if they compare themselves to that, it's a much harder argument to make.

"I think this is a very good point really worth emphasizing, that tomorrow's launch should not be a verdict on the viability of commercial space. Commercial space is the only way forward. If we go with super-expensive government developments, in the absence of some massive increase in the space budget, we will never do anything interesting in space. ... It's not 'a' path forward, it's the 'only' path forward.

"I hope people don't put too much emphasis on our success, because it's simply not correct to have the fate of commercial launch depend on what happens in the next few days. But it certainly does add to the pressure. There's more weight on our shoulders because of that. I wish there weren't."

Bretton Alexander, president of Commercial Spaceflight Federation, agreed, telling Spaceflight Now that because of the ongoing debate over the Obama administration's new space policy, the Falcon 9 launch has taken on "added significance."

That said, they are trying to lower expectations," Alexander said. "It's quite possible they won't be 100 percent successful, and people have to understand that. We are not going to be overly gushing if it's successful, and we're not going to be overly critical if it's not. It's just a step, and you have to treat it as that."

Asked a final time about his optimism and confidence level going into Friday's launch attempt, Musk said "I feel like that scene in 'The Deer Hunter.' I think we're probably three quarters likely to succeed. I hope that space favors us tomorrow and we're in the right three quarters of that probability."

"But either way, we're going to learn something," Bowersox said. "When the vehicle lifts off the pad, no matter what the outcome is, we're going to learn something that's going to make the second flight more likely, and the third flight and the fourth flight."