|By Frank Morring, Jr.|
|Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) engineers have concluded it may be possible to modify the company’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle to make it fully reusable, a feat SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk says could cut the cost of access to orbit “a hundred-fold.”Speaking at the National Press Club, Musk, who also carries the title chief technical officer in his job description, says he has concluded over the past 12 months that it is at least tentatively feasible to modify the kerosene-fueled vehicle’s main and upper stages for return to Earth using propulsive landing with landing gear, protecting the upper stage with a heat shield for re-entry.
By reusing most of the vehicle, the cost of flying to orbit becomes primarily the cost of propellant, he says, which puts it at $200,000 a flight.
“We’ll see if this works,” he says. “If it does work, it will be pretty huge.”
Musk stresses that the work on reusability is unrelated to the company’s plan to launch a commercial cargo vehicle to the International Space Station (ISS) in the near future. Initially set for November, that flight has slipped along with the station’s visiting-vehicles schedule following the Soyuz launch failure that claimed a Russian Progress resupply vehicle.
The company also must await final approval to fly two Orbcomm data-relay satellites as piggyback payloads on its first flight to the station, which would demonstrate the ability of the Dragon cargo capsule to provide ISS logistics and fulfill a major milestone in the company’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services seed-money agreement with NASA.
SpaceX posted an animation of a recoverable Falcon 9’s flight profile on its website Sept. 29. But Musk cautions that it is not technically accurate, in part because of a time lag in the animation process and in part because “we’re keeping a few technical things under our hat.”
One of those is likely to be the exact flight profile that would return the unwinged vehicle to its launch site for a vertical landing, a launch-abort feat that space shuttle astronauts considered risky and never tried with the winged orbiters.
Musk says the Dragon capsule is as safe for human spaceflight now as the shuttle ever was, largely because, like the shuttle, it lacks a launch abort system that can rescue a crew from a failure on ascent. The company is working under another NASA seed-money effort to develop a pusher-type launch abort system for the Dragon, which Musk says could be ready in three years at most.
Musk acknowledges the help — financial and technical — that SpaceX has received from NASA. His biggest problem with the government at the moment is with the Air Force, he says, citing the service’s reluctance to open its launch-service procurements to newcomers like SpaceX that lack a long track record.
Musk says that reluctance grows out of a stated desire to protect the industrial base represented by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which provide the Delta IV and Atlas V launchers through United Launch Alliance. But the Atlas V is powered by RD-180 rocket engines built in Russia, he says, and large pieces of its structure are made in Switzerland.
“Which industrial base are we talking about preserving?” he says, adding that “if this decision is based on lobbying power, we’re screwed.”
Falcon 9 photo: SpaceX