26 March 2003
Other - Other (None)
Will Spacex Succeed...
...where Beal failed?
by Alan Breakstone
by Alan Breakstone

A new company is attempting to build and fly a more reliable and cost-effective satellite launch vehicle than those currently available. Will this company and its staff of experienced aerospace professionals succeed where others failed? And would the success of this new venture have an effect on space tourism?

The new company is Space Exploration Technologies ("SpaceX") in El Segundo,
California. SpaceX was founded by computer industry entrepreneur Elon Musk in June 2002. On March 19, 2003, less than a year after its founding, SpaceX announced the successful ground test firing of its Falcon rocket main engine.

SpaceX's Falcon will be a two-stage, liquid oxygen and kerosene powered rocket, capable of placing half a ton into low Earth orbit. With strap-on liquid boosters, Falcon could lift up to one and a half tons. The partially reusable Falcon is expected to be ready for launch by late 2003, with the actual liftoff date subject to US Air Force, NASA, and US Federal Aviation Administration approval. SpaceX intends to launch the Falcon from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The rocket's first stage is to parachute to a splashdown and recovery.

SpaceX ultimately plans to use the two-stage Falcon as the second and third stages of a larger three-stage rocket. That vehicle will compete in the heavy-lift payload class currently occupied by Arianespace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, China Aerospace and Russia's Krunichev.

Does SpaceX have plans to launch passengers as well as cargo? According to SpaceX public relations official Tereza Predescu, "The Falcon is mainly meant for small to medium-size payloads into LEO, not for passenger travel. However, pending on the success of the project, that may very well be an application." Predescu is also Director of Communications for space tourism pioneer Space Adventures.

But the Falcon project is very similar to the plans of Andrew Beal, whose Beal Aerospace made great technical progress in developing a low-cost medium launcher in the 1990s. However, Beal pulled out of the space business recently, claiming that competition from NASA had forced him out of the market. How can this new venture succeed where Beal Aerospace failed?

Predescu explains, "SpaceX is different from previous endeavors in that it has an ambitious yet realistic vision, a team of very experienced engineers and developers, no new required technology, all necessary funding in place, small overhead costs, and a design that is safe, reliable, flexible, and affordable. We don't require government investment/funding, and our relationship with NASA has been excellent to date."

Predescu announced that SpaceX already has two customers lined up, one of which wants to launch as early as December 2003. And more are in the pipeline, according to Predescu.

If SpaceX can launch satellites at considerably less cost than government agencies and large aerospace companies, they will have shown the way to viable private space travel. Such a technology and industrial base might also benefit space tourism. And SpaceX's good relationship with NASA might herald a more tolerant attitude toward private space operations than the US space agency has previously shown. We shall watch the skies and see.
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Alan Breakstone 26 March 2003
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