Press Release

Falcon 1 Maiden Flight Update

By SpaceRef Editor
December 8, 2005
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Falcon 1 Maiden Flight Update
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The new launch date is approximately December 20, depending on when the Missile Defense Agency testing is complete. As soon as we have a firm time, it will be posted here.

On November 26, 2005, the fist SpaceX launch attempt was scrubbed. As SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stated during a pre-launch press conference, the likelihood of an all new rocket launching from an all new launch pad on its first attempt is low. The reason for the delay was an auxiliary liquid oxygen (LOX) fill tank had a manual vent valve incorrectly set to vent. The time it took to correct the problem resulted in significant LOX boiloff and loss of helium, and it was the latter that caused the launch abort. LOX is used to chill the helium bottles, so we lose helium if there is no LOX to cool the bottles. Although we were eventually able to refill the vehicle LOX tanks, the rate at which we could add helium was slower than the rate at which LOX was boiling away. There was no way to close the gap, so the launch had to be called off. In addition, we experienced an anomaly with the main engine computer that required further investigation.

Liquid Oxygen

Regarding liquid oxygen (LOX) supplies, we expect to have enough on hand this time to fill the rocket four or five times over. This should account for almost any issue with a particular storage tank as well as an extended hold on the pad. We chartered a C-17 to fly two of our empty high quality LOX containers to Hawaii, sourced another high quality LOX container on Hawaii and put all three on the barge to Kwajalein. In addition, our LOX plant on Kwajalein has been repaired and is producing LOX on island again.

Many have asked how we could run out of LOX on a remote tropical island on the last launch attempt. The team tried hard to avoid it, but several issues conspired to create the problem:

  • The additional month of Merlin testing resulted in additional LOX boil-off on island. Even though it is stored in vacuum jacketed containers, LOX at -300F degrees does not like being on a tropical island at 85F.
  • The SpaceX LOX plant on island broke down a few weeks prior to launch, which meant we could not top up.
  • We ordered replacement LOX from Hawaii, but the container quality was poor, so only 20% of what we ordered actually arrived.
  • Ground winds were unusually high on launch day, which amplifies the boil-off rate significantly, since the Falcon’s first stage LOX tank is uninsulated.
  • All of the above would not have mattered if our final storage tank did not have a small, manual vent valve incorrectly in the open position. Somewhat agonizingly, we were only a few percent away from being full. We just needed a little sip from the last tank.
  • After a while, we were able to close the vent and fill the vehicle’s LOX tanks. However, we use LOX to chill our onboard helium and the absence of ground LOX to do so resulted in the helium heating up and venting back to storage. In the end, we did not have enough LOX to stay filled on the rocket and chill & pressurize the helium.

Engine Computer

The engine computer reboot anomaly was definitively traced to a ground power problem. Importantly, this would have had no effect on flight, since we switch to vehicle power before the autosequence begins. The reason it cropped up at Kwajalein was that the higher load on the longer umbilical (three times longer than in prior tests) coupled with high temperatures in Kwajalein resulted in increased resistance in the ground umbilical. This was just enough to lower the voltage below minimums and cause an engine computer reset when drawing maximum power. The same max power test was repeated on internal vehicle batteries with no problem at all.

This problem has been solved by slightly increasing voltage on the ground umbilical.

SpaceX Launch Overview

On launch day, the Falcon 1 countdown to launch is expected to reach T-Zero. At that point, the hold-down clamps will release and the Falcon 1 rocket will begin its journey to orbit, accelerating to 17,000 mph (twenty-five times the speed of sound) in less than ten minutes.

Designed from the ground up by SpaceX, Falcon 1 is a two stage rocket powered by liquid oxygen and purified, rocket grade kerosene. The Falcon 1 launch will make history for several reasons:

  • It will be the first privately developed, liquid fueled rocket to reach orbit and the world’s first all new orbital rocket in over a decade.
  • The main engine of Falcon 1 (Merlin) will be the first all new American hydrocarbon booster engine to be flown in forty years and only the second new American booster engine of any kind in twenty-five years.
  • The Falcon 1 is the only rocket flying 21 st century avionics, which require a small fraction of the power and mass of other systems.
  • It will be the world’s only semi-reusable orbital rocket apart from the Shuttle (all other launch vehicles are completely expendable).
  • Most importantly, Falcon 1, priced at $6.7 million, will provide the lowest cost per flight to orbit of any launch vehicle in the world, despite receiving a design reliability rating equivalent to that of the best launch vehicles currently flying in the United States.

The maiden flight will take place from the Kwajalein Atoll of the Marshall Islands. The customer for this mission is DARPA and the Air Force and the payload will be FalconSat-2, part of the Air Force Academy’s satellite program that will measure space plasma phenomena, which can adversely affect space-based communications, including GPS and other civil and military communications. The target orbit is 400 km X 500 km (just above the International Space Station) at an inclination of 39 degrees.

On November 26, 2005, the fist SpaceX launch attempt was scrubbed. As SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stated during a pre-launch press conference, the likelihood of an all new rocket launching from an all new launch pad on its first attempt is low.

The reason for the delay was an auxiliary liquid oxygen (LOX) fill tank had a manual vent valve incorrectly set to vent. The time it took to correct the problem resulted in significant LOX boiloff and loss of helium, and it was the latter that caused the launch abort. LOX is used to chill the helium bottles, so we lose helium if there is no LOX to cool the bottles. Although we were eventually able to refill the vehicle LOX tanks, the rate at which we could add helium was slower than the rate at which LOX was boiling away. There was no way to close the gap, so the launch had to be called off. In addition, we experienced an anomaly with the main engine computer that requires further investigation and was arguably reason in and of itself to postpone launch. Viewing for Media on Launch Day

The live feed of this historic launch will be available to the media at SpaceX Headquarters in El Segundo, CA – five minutes south of Los Angeles International Airport. Media check-in will begin at 12:00 p.m. PST on launch day. The launch window is 1 – 5 p.m. (PST). Food and beverages will be made available.

To attend the launch viewing event, media must contact SpaceX at 310-414-6555 ext 283 or news@spacex.com. Please provide full name, affiliation, citizenship and date of birth.

Media not able to attend may listen and ask questions through a moderated telephone conference line. The toll free conference dial-in number is (866) 209-6438. The international access dial-in number is (865) 297-1127. Please contact SpaceX for the participant code to join the media viewing event.

Still photos and videos of the launch will be made available to the public on www.spacex.com within a couple of hours of the launch.

SpaceRef staff editor.