Preliminary data indicates that Falcon 9 achieved all of its primary mission objectives, culminating in a nearly perfect insertion of the second stage and Dragon spacecraft qualification unit into the targeted 250 km (155 mi) circular orbit. SpaceX also gathered important aerodynamic data during ascent and vehicle performance, which will be used in final preparations for the upcoming NASA demonstration and missions to the International Space Station (ISS).
“This is a major milestone not only for SpaceX, but the increasingly bright future of space flight,” said Elon Musk, CEO and CTO, SpaceX. “It was an incredible day for the employees of SpaceX, but it is important to note that we did not do this alone. I’d like to thank from the bottom of my heart all of our supporters in NASA—particularly the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) office—the US Air Force, the FAA and our customers. Their support has been critical to this success.”
SpaceX currently has an extensive and diverse manifest of over 30 contracted missions, including 18 missions to deliver commercial satellites to orbit. In addition, the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft have been contracted by NASA to carry cargo, which includes live plants and animals, to and from the ISS. Both Falcon 9 and Dragon have already been designed to meet NASA’s published human rating standards for astronaut transport, allowing for a rapid transition to astronauts within three years of receiving a contract to do so. The critical path item is development and testing of the launch escape system, which would be a significant improvement in safety over the Space Shuttle, which does not possess an escape system.
The NASA COTS program has demonstrated the power of what can be accomplished when you combine private sector responsiveness and ingenuity with the guidance, support and insight of the US government. For less than the cost of the Ares I mobile service tower, SpaceX has developed all the flight hardware for the Falcon 9 orbital rocket, Dragon spacecraft, as well as three launch sites. SpaceX has been profitable for three consecutive years (2007 through 2009) and expects to remain modestly profitable for the foreseeable future. The company has over 1000 employees in California, Texas and Florida, and has been approximately doubling in size every two years. A majority of the future growth is expected to occur in Texas and Florida.
Falcon 9 lifted off at 2:45 p.m. (EDT) / 18:45 (UTC) from Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station located on the Atlantic coast of Florida, approximately 5.5 km (3.5 mi) southeast of NASA’s space shuttle launch site. The Falcon 9 launch vehicle is powered by a cluster of nine SpaceX-designed and developed Merlin engines. Using ultra pure jet fuel and liquid oxygen, the engines generated nearly a million pounds of thrust for the vehicle upon liftoff. View a high definition liftoff video clip here.
The Merlin engine is one of only two orbit class rocket engines developed in the United States in the last decade (SpaceX’s Kestrel is the other), and is the highest efficiency American hydrocarbon engine ever built. The Falcon 9 first stage, with a fully fueled to dry weight ratio of over 20, has the world’s best structural efficiency, despite being designed to higher human rated factors of safety.