Space Industry Profile: SpaceX, part 1

So, I'm a little bit of a commercial space fangirl.

One of my first posts was about the possible abandoning of the International Space Station because the Russian resupply rocket failed.  In it, I suggested that they move SpaceX's schedule up and get the Dragon to send up the relief crew.  Good news is that the Russians have fixed the problem and will send a relief crew up Nov 12, so it'll be "business as usual" for the ISS.  "Bad news" is I might have been a little over-optimistic in my assessment of SpaceX's abilities.

So I thought I'd do a little research on SpaceX.

SpaceX was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, who created PayPal and sold it to eBay for 1.5 billion dollars in stock.  He's using his wealth to develop launch vehicles and capsules to send humans as well as supplies into space.  (As opposed to just launching satellites, for example, although their rockets can do that, too.)  In addition to commercial funds, they have some NASA funding through the COTS program--which is Commercial Orbital Transportation Services.  Essentially NASA awarded some commercial companies money to develop technology.  SpaceX got $278 million dollars.  That seems a lot, but consider that the Space Shuttle cost $450/mission.  The Russians charge $47 million per seat on Soyuz (according to a SpaceX press release) and that's going up to $66.3 million per seat in 2014, according to NASA.  SpaceX intends to get this price to $20 million per seat.

Yeah, that's pretty ambitious, but if they even get close, wow!

So how do they plan on doing this?  First, they claim to cut costs by doing the entire manufacturing in-house.  In other words, they don't subcontract to other companies for their parts.  They say this not only keeps cost down but also allows gives them better quality control.  (Of course, one of the arguments against this is that they aren't benefiting from established companies that have decades of experience building rocket parts, and some people, such as Loren Thompson, a commentator for Forbes, believes they increase their risks for failure this way. They're also banking on being able to reuse most of their rockets, and (a big contributor!) cutting down on bureaucracy.  Since they aren't a government contractor, they are already way ahead on this!

So far, SpaceX has three rockets:

Falcon 1:  This is a liquid fueled rocket (using rocket-grade kerosene) and can carry 1000kg of payload into low earth orbit.  The price on their website for the service is $10 million. That's actually a small payload, BTW.    Get details here:

Falcon 9:  This is their medium-lift spacecraft, with nine engines.  It can take payloads to LEO (Low Earth Orbit) or GTO (Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit).  This is the one that will service the International Space Station.  It can take 10,450 kg into LEO and 4,450 kg into GTO when launched from Cape Canaveral, with an estimated price per launch of $54 to $60 million.

The Falcon Heavy is the biggest rocket in the world, as far as payload ability, and is able to carry 53,000 kg into LEO.  The estimated price is $80 to $125 million per launch.

The Dragon:  This is SpaceX's capsule which will carry supplies and people to the International Space Station (or if anybody else builds a station, orbiting hotel, or (I surmise) for tourists wanting to go up, orbit and come down).  They are also designing it for carrying experiments. One thing I thought was smart in the design is that the unmanned and manned capsules are similar, so that they are easy to interchange and so that they could test manned capabilities while doing unmanned missions.  (From their website:  "To ensure a rapid transition from cargo to crew capability, the cargo and crew configurations of Dragon are almost identical, with the exception of the crew escape system, the life support system and onboard controls that allow the crew to take over control from the flight computer when needed.")

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