Heavy, Heavy

Do We Have The Lift?

After the Space Shuttle retires (sometime in 2010 or 2011), the U.S. will have, officially, no means to lift more than a few pounds of material into space.  At least, it won’t until the next generation of launch vehicles is ready.  That’s expected to be in about 2015.  [Insert snarky, cynical quip about NASA meeting schedules here. – ed.]

That is not a good thing. However, there seems to be good – very good – news coming from the private sector on this.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) successfully conducted a full mission-length firing of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle’s first stage at its McGregor Test Facility in Texas, on November 22. For the static test firing, the first stage remains firmly secured to the massive vertical test stand, where it fired for 178 seconds or nearly three minutes – simulating the climb of the giant rocket from the surface of the Earth towards orbit.

At full power, the rocket generated 855,000 pounds of force at sea level. In vacuum, the thrust increases to approximately one million pounds or four times the maximum thrust of a 747 aircraft. The test consumed over half a million pounds of propellant. All nine engines fired for 160 seconds, then two engines were shut down to limit the acceleration and the remaining seven engines continued firing for 18 more seconds, as would occur in a typical climb to orbit.

Controlling nine (count ’em, 9) engines at once is a non-trivial proposition.  SpaceX, a private company, seems to be on the verge of delivering to business what NASA has been delivering up to now – a reliable heavy lifting capability suitable for business needs.  It remains to be seen if the SpaceX solution is cheap enough to be useful, but this is promising.  With nine engines, reliability becomes a much smaller issue.

SpaceX is developing a family of launch vehicles intended to increase the reliability and reduce the cost of both manned and unmanned space transportation, ultimately by a factor of ten. With its Falcon line of launch vehicles, powered by internally-developed Merlin engines, SpaceX offers light, medium and heavy lift capabilities to deliver spacecraft into any altitude and inclination, from low-Earth to geosynchronous orbit to planetary missions.

As a side note, it appears that this test took some Texans (look ma – alliteration!) a bit by surprise.  It was LOUD!

Evidently SpaceX notified some officials, but not everybody got the news. I can imagine being terrified of something like this happening even 25 miles away — it must have looked like Armageddon. I feel kinda bad for the local folks, but on the other hand SpaceX is pumping quite a bit of money into the area, so I hope they can forgive.

But I bet they won’t forget.

Check out this link or Phil Plait’s site (link immediately above) for a video of nearly one million lbs. of thrust going off for over 3 minutes.  It’s rather – awesome. [Stop imitating a teen. – ed. Whatever.  – j]

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