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Thu, Jun 03, 2010

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk Gives Falcon 9 First Flight A 75 Percent Chance Of Success

Maiden Flight Of The Commercial Rocket Planned For Friday, Weather Permitting

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, and Ken Bowersox, VP of Astronaut Safety and Mission Assurance, say the Falcon 9 maiden launch scheduled for Friday has about a 75 percent chance of success, and regardless of the outcome, the launch is expected to provide valuable data for continued development of the commercial space industry.

In a conference call with reporters Thursday, about 24 hours before the scheduled launch, CEO Musk said commercial space exploration is "the only way forward." Musk said relying on massive government programs would require massive increases in the space budget, and "we'll never do anything interesting in space."

SpaceX and NASA are in discussions concerning re-supply for the ISS, and Musk said that schedule has been moved up. The second Falcon 9 flight will be the first under the NASA COTS program. An empty Dragon capsule will be boosted to orbit on what is being called the "COTS 1" flight, but the plan for the "COTS 2" flight is now to carry non-critical cargo to the ISS. "COTS 3" is now on the schedule as a backup to COTS 2.

Musk said that part of his optimism about Friday's test launch is that Falcon 9 shares many components with the smaller Falcon 1 rocket, but he re-iterated that first flights have about a 50-50 success rate. "The first successful Atlas flight was on flight 13," Musk said, "and the Atlas V is arguably now the most reliable vehicle in the U.S. fleet."

Ken Bowersox, a former NASA astronaut, said the biggest difference in working in the private sector is the amount of risk that can be accepted, and the ability to quickly re-group. Bowersox said a commercial company is likely to reach the end point more quickly, and at less cost. He used as an example the Falcon 9 second stage. He said that in a NASA program, that engine would have to be static tested in a complete vacuum, and such a facility doesn't exist in the private sector. Flying the second stage on a test flight is far less expensive, he said.

Musk said that hundreds of sensors will cover the Falcon 9 for its first launch, measuring everything from tank pressure to dynamic pressure and vibrations. "Just a crazy number of sensors on the vehicle," he said. Musk expects the critical data to be analyzed the day after the launch, but that a more detailed analysis will take about a month. He said the company hopes to recover the first stage of the rocket, and it has been equipped with heat shielding and parachutes to make that more likely. But recovery of the first stage is not one of the criteria for success. The most critical moment in the flight will likely be when the first and second stage separate, Musk said. "We've spent a lot of time testing that, and trying to design something that was redundant, but generally speaking, when ever you've got a change of state in flight, that's where things get riskiest."


SpaceX Dragon Artist's Concept

In the end, Musk and Bowersox agreed that companies like SpaceX are the future of space. Relying on the government would result in a small number of launches at tremendous expense. And while Friday's launch may not draw a big crowd, as do shuttle launches, Musk said that when it becomes a manned system, no matter what company develops it, people will once again line the beaches and causeways around the space center. It will, after all, be the first new manned spacecraft developed in 30 years, he said. But "eventually, I hope someday it's so routine there's nobody out to watch, or like a few people at the end of the airport taking pictures," said Bowersox.

The Falcon 9 launch window opens Friday at 1100 EDT and lasts for 4 hours. A second window is available Saturday at the same time. SpaceX will webcast the launch ... but some of us are close enough that we hope to be able to be there.

FMI: www.spacex.com, www.spacex.com/webcast.php

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