SpaceX, a U.S. space exploration technology company, recently made two consecutive history series, with the first manned test launch by a private company and the first automatic docking of a private spacecraft with the International Space Station, opening the door for a private airline to mann human spaceflight,media reported. However, SpaceX’s success and its ability to stand out from the competition in the market should actually be the Falcon 9 launch vehicle.
Figure 1: SpaceX Falcon 9 test rocket lifts off from launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on June 4, 2010.
The Falcon rocket is named after SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk based on the “Millennium Falcon” in the Star Wars series, and is named “9” because of the nine engines on the first stage of the rocket. On June 4, 2010, the Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched for the first time. But at the time, people didn’t realize what the rocket would do to the space industry in the 21st century.
On June 3, 2010, as summer thunderstorms rolled inland from the Atlantic Ocean, the winds roared across Florida’s space coast. The sky appeared to have opened the floodgates, with heavy rain bringing 7.5cm of rain to parts of Cape Canaveral in an hour. The storm seemed a bad omen for the first Falcon 9 rocket, which SpaceX’s launch team installed on the launch pad just over a day ago. After completing a series of static ignition and refueling tests in the spring of 2010, SpaceX finally secured Air Force launch approval for the launch as early as June 4.
In the past four years, SpaceX has made five attempts to launch smaller Falcon 1 rockets from tropical islands, three of which failed. Now, the company has been granted access to the most legendary Cape Canaveral spaceport in the United States on Florida’s east coast. It’s full of expensive launch pads and countless rocket facilities, and the damage caused by the failed launch could not only be caused by SpaceX’s reputation, but also to destroy national security assets.
Four tall lightning towers protected the rocket from lightning during the rain, but post-storm inspections showed that the Falcon 9 rocket’s second-stage antenna sent a faint telemetry signal. The downpour that day must have entered the electronics, which is a potential threat to the next day’s launch attempt and must be fixed as soon as possible. To that end, Tim Buzza, SpaceX’s launch director, Elon Musk, the founder, and Brent Altan, the senior director of avionics, drove to the launch pad.
They arrived at the launch pad long after dark, and the Falcon 9 rocket was dropped horizontally from its vertical launch position. Altan, who knows avionics as well as everyone else, climbed a ladder to where the rocket’s second-stage antenna was. He lifted the lid to assess the damage and confirmed that the rain had indeed entered the rocket’s electronic devices.
Altan returned to the ground to quickly discuss with Musk, Bazaar and several other engineers. Should they try to replace the electronics on the launch pad? Do they need to push the Falcon 9 rocket back into the hangar and postpone the launch for a few days? None of these options were appropriate, and engineers decided to try a low-tech solution, using a dryer. Altan returned to the ladder and began to wave the dryer back and forth until the antenna and its electronic devices looked dry.
Meanwhile, on the ground, Musk and others waited anxiously. SpaceX, which was just eight years old, survived a near-bankruptcy crisis two years ago and was later saved by NASA, making the launch possible. The Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad will make its first test flight, and if all goes well, the company may soon begin delivering cargo to NASA to the International Space Station. But if it fails, many skeptics are ready to slam SpaceX, who do not believe Musk or his company will be able to take on the task of delivering space supplies.
After drying, Artan shut down the electronic capsule on the rocket and applied silicone sealants so that the rocket could survive as it ascended into space. Then, in the eyes of all, Artan climbed back to the ground. As he walked down the ladder, Musk immediately came over with questions. “Do you think you can launch tomorrow?” he asked. Altan replied: “It should work.” “
Musk didn’t speak, he just stared at Artan with his eyes, as if to ask, Is this your final answer? In this case, Musk wants to know if Artan is giving his boss the answer he wants to hear, or whether he’s expressing his true thoughts. Seconds later, Musk got the answer again. As it turns out, everything is going well. Although the telemetry signal for the second stage antenna at launch the next day was not as strong as expected, Musk said it was enough. At 2:45 p.m. local time on June 4, 2010, the first Falcon 9 rocket was launched off the coast of Florida.
SpaceX’s first goal of the test flight was simply to avoid damaging its launch pad or other valuable facilities at Cape Canaveral. Second, the company wants the rocket to be in orbit. The Falcon 9 rocket not only achieved that goal, but even did better. For the new launch vehicle, the accuracy of the second stage is amazing, with it inserting itself into orbit at an inclination of 34.494 degrees, just below the 35-degree target. So, starting 10 years ago, the era of the Falcon 9 rocket officially arrived.
Launch commercial launch mode
Just last weekend, SpaceX’s manned Dragon spacecraft made all the headlines, the first time a human has entered space from Florida since the space shuttle was decommissioned nine years ago. But the real credit behind SpaceX’s rise over the past decade is undoubtedly the Falcon 9 rocket.
The Falcon Rocket Booster has created many industry firsts, from vertical landing to reusable to entering orbit with nine engines on the first stage. Talk about the cost of the Falcon rocket. When it debuted 10 years ago, SpaceX offered a base launch cost of $50 million for the Falcon 9 rocket. After several incremental increases, the company has set the base launch price for the Falcon 9 rocket at $62 million since 2016, putting pressure on rivals in the satellite launch industry.
About two thirds of the global launch markets are virtually non-competitive, as most of the payloads launched belong to the country. For example, Russia and other spacefaring countries often launch military and scientific satellites with home-grown rockets. Only about one third of the overall launch market is truly open to competition, including the launch of satellite networks or the provision of communications satellites and imaging satellite launches to countries that do not have launch capabilities.
Decades ago, U.S. launch companies abandoned the commercial market as they began to focus on winning more lucrative launch contracts for the U.S. military. By 2006, when Boeing and Lockheed Martin merged their rocket operations into a joint venture, United Launch Alliance (ULA), the U.S. had almost zero share of the competitive launch market. Customers in the U.S. and abroad are turning to Europe, Russia and elsewhere to enter the orbit at lower prices. At the same time, ULA’s launch prices have risen steadily, thanks to a monopoly on NASA and u.S. defense missions.
The success of the Falcon 9 rocket dramatically reversed that trend. To reduce the cost of delivering supplies to the International Space Station, NASA invested $396 million in SpaceX from 2006 to 2010 to develop its cargo Dragon spacecraft, Falcon 9 rocket and launch pad in Cape Town. The investment, which led to the launch of the Falcon rocket on June 4, 2010, not only brought greater benefits to NASA, but also brought value to the country.
“Thanks to NASA’s investment in SpaceX, we now have about 70 percent of our commercial launch market,” said Jim Bridenstine, NASA Director. This represents a big change from 2012, when our share was zero. “
It’s more crazy than drying a radio antenna!
Earlier this year, musk was asked about his late-night trip to the launch pad in June 2010 and the last-minute repair of the Falcon 9 rocket’s avionics. “To me, your decision to stick to the next day’s launch seemed pretty crazy, but it was a perfect launch,” the reporter asked. In response, Musk said, “I’ve done something crazy than drying a radio antenna!” “
In fact, in the second flight of the Falcon 9 rocket, they did do something even crazier. In early December 2010, SpaceX launched its second Falcon 9 rocket into the launch pad. The purpose of the launch was to test the condition of the Dragon spacecraft during its flight and re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. The mission was a high-profile because SpaceX placed Brou’re cheese in the capsule to pay tribute to the comedy group Monty Python’s Cheese Shop.
But the real drama again involved the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket. The second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket is powered by a single Merlin vacuum engine, which pushes the payload into orbit after falling off in the larger first stage. The engine has an elongated nozzle that gets the best thrust above the Earth’s atmosphere. The nozzle is made of C-103 vanadium alloy and is a fairly robust material.
Preparations for the Falcon 9 rocket’s second flight went well until the final pre-launch photo inspection days before the December 8 launch. In these photos, SpaceX’s launch team realized that they had a serious problem, namely a crack in the nozzle that extended nearly a third of its way up the nozzle. It turned out that about a month before the launch, SpaceX had received a request from NASA to add more gaseous nitrogen to the rocket’s stages. As a result, the technician laid a 2.5 cm long line at the bottom and blasted the nitrogen into it. This air flow causes the Merlin engine nozzle to vibrate and eventually rupture.
The rocket cannot be launched if the nozzle breaks, and the process of replacing it is cumbersome and requires SpaceX’s California plant to produce the nozzle as quickly as possible, ship it to Florida and install it on the rocket. This can take up to a month. Musk hates delaying mission dates. With the launch of the Cargo Dragon spacecraft, he knew full well that SpaceX would make new history. No private company had previously put the spacecraft into orbit and safely recovered it. So he took out his cell phone and called Marty Anderson, the company’s ace technician.
Musk wants Anderson to carry metal scissors into the inside of the rocket and cut the extended nozzle short, the fastest way to solve the engine nozzle rupture. Anderson accepted the task. A few hours later, he flew from the company’s California plant to Florida in Musk’s private jet, into an elevator and a crane to the rocket-stage position. At that time, the rocket stood upright on the launch pad, and soon Anderson cut the nozzle short.
Shorter engine nozzles will result in a slight decrease in the second stage performance of the SpaceX rocket and a lower propulsion rate. But the bigger concern is that the move destroys an antioxidant coating, which could lead to some erosion after ignition. “We don’t think it matters as long as the erosion is not too fast,” Musk explained. But Musk doesn’t have the final say. In hindsight, SpaceX had to convince its customers that NASA believed the solution was reliable. The success of the flight will take SpaceX a big step closer to delivering cargo to the space station. On the other hand, losing the Dragon spacecraft before it completes critical orbit tests is a serious setback for NASA and the company.
Figure 3: SpaceX launch director Tim Bazaar pays tribute to technician Marty Anderson at a post-launch party
Mr Bouza, a longtime space X launch director, said convincing NASA would not be easy. He and other vice presidents of the company, including Hans Koenigsmann and Tom Mueller, briefed NASA’s commercial freight program leaders, including Mike Horkachuk and Alan Lindenmoyer, on their findings. “They don’t understand what we’re proposing or what we’re doing to the nozzle,” Bouza said. “
But SpaceX’s vice president and NASA engineers worked together to solve the problem, which lasted about 24 hours. At the end of the analysis, they presented the work to Bill Gersten Maier, NASA’s head of manned spaceflight, who had the final rights to the board. “At 2 a.m. the day before the launch, Musk called me and said he had spoken to Gerstenmeier and our launch was approved,” Bouza said. “
Shortly before noon the next day, the Falcon 9 rocket was launched. The launch was again successful and the second stage of the short nozzle was well performed. Three hours later, the dragon ship and the cheese it carried returned to Earth. That night, the SpaceX team revelled. They finally have a working rocket and a spaceship.
SpaceX rocket sits more than 10 years ahead of its peers
The Falcon 9 rocket is not without flaws. During the seventh commercial resupply mission (CRS-7) in June 2015, its booster failed on its way into orbit, destroying the Dragon spacecraft that was delivering supplies to the International Space Station. More than a year later, SpaceX lost another rocket during a static ignition test at Cape Canaveral. Since then, SpaceX has successfully launched the Falcon 9 rocket more than 50 times in a row. Since then, SpaceX engineers have been learning about their boosters and have been looking for improvements.
Most notably, SpaceX demonstrated the reusability of the first-stage booster. In fact, SpaceX has recovered the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket for the first time in its failed mission. In April of the following year, the company completed its first unmanned test flight landing. Then, in March 2017, SpaceX successfully launched its payload for the first time using a second-hand Falcon 9 rocket booster. In the three years since, SpaceX has recovered more than 50 rockets, some of which have been launched more than five times.
Carissa Christensen, founder of analytics firm Bryce Space and Technology, says the space industry has been talking for decades about the reuse of vertical rockets for launch and landing. “It always leads to different results, which is desirable, but it never happens,” she said. SpaceX then achieved that goal. “
SpaceX, meanwhile, is doing so. Usually in space flight, government agencies contract for some type of project and select a contractor to perform the work. While SpaceX has secured substantial funding from NASA to transport cargo and crew to the space station, it does not have the funds to develop reusable features. Instead, Christensen said, SpaceX chose to invest its own money to remove technical hurdles. In return, SpaceX now has the world’s only reusable orbital rocket, and it has just further enhanced its ability to dominate the commercial satellite market.
Figure 4: SpaceX Falcon Rocket Family
Over the past decade, SpaceX has used the Falcon 9 rocket to capture not only commercial satellite launches, but also most NASA cargo and manned programs, many scientific missions and a growing number of military contracts, Christensen said. The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket is also the foundation of the world’s most powerful launch vehicle, the Falcon Heavy Rocket. “SpaceX has really proven that the aircraft is highly adaptable and has a pretty good track record of success,” she said. “
Around the world, companies and countries are struggling to compete. In the US, ULA is retiring its Atlas and Delta rockets in favour of more competitive Vulcan rockets. Japan’s H3 rocket was inspired by the need to cut prices, and Russia is phasing out its rumored Proton rocket. Christensen said Arianespace is phasing out the older Ariane 5 rocket and switching to the lower-cost Ariane 6. However, it remains to be seen whether the rockets will catch up with the Falcon 9, as SpaceX is always improving.
“Obviously, the space industry is on the road to the next generation of launch vehicles, but SpaceX’s rockets are more than 10 years ahead of their peers,” Christensen marveled. SpaceX launched its next-generation launch vehicle 10 years ago. Compared with a decade ago, the launch industry has become almost completely out of sight. At the time, SpaceX was still a new addition. Today, the Falcon 9 rocket is considered an old-fashioned, reliable launch vehicle. “
Starships represent the future.
Until 2005, SpaceX focused on increasing the frequency of launches, and more launches meant more revenue. After a period of growth, the company succeeded in increasing the frequency of launches from an average of less than four a year in 2016 to about 20 a year recently.
As SpaceX seeks to dramatically improve rocket performance, the pace of launch is accelerating. The company launched three major upgrades after launching its original Falcon 9 rocket five times a decade ago. Version 1.1 appeared in 2013 and the fuel tank was larger and the thrust was increased by 60%. In 2015, SpaceX launched the Falcon 9 full thrust version, which features an upgraded Merlin engine and a larger second-stage version.
Rob Meyerson, who has been president of Blue Origin for 15 years, was surprised by the progress made between version 1.1 and full thrust. “In 18 months, the performance of these rockets in geostationary transfer orbit sattered almost twice, ” he said. It’s absolutely remarkable. For industries that pride most on reducing change, there are countless changes within SpaceX to make it happen. “
These performance improvements ultimately achieved the reusable target of the Falcon 9 rocket. In May 2018, the company unveiled its last major improvement on the Falcon 9 rocket, called Block 5. This optimizes the reuse of boosters, as only the Block 5 version has flown more than twice. Overall, the Falcon 9 rocket’s lift capacity increased from 10 tons in 2010 to 22.8 tons in 2018. With this additional performance, SpaceX could set aside fuel for a controlled landing, which would eventually be fully reused.
Now, much of Skewes’s energy is focused on developing his next-generation launch system, the Starship. The Falcon 9 rocket is a thing of the past because for SpaceX, the starship represents the future. But without the Falcon 9 rocket, there would be no starship. With these rockets, Musk has proved to NASA and the rest of the world that SpaceX can build world-class rockets. This booster provides a number of lessons for driving performance improvements and reusability challenges. Now, with the world watching the Falcon 9 rocket, Musk has the ability to look ahead to the future of his low-cost star trek. (Small)