Sunday, February 4, 2018

SpaceX Launches World’s Biggest Rocket: Blastoff caps years of delay, $1 billion in investment for firm founded by Elon Musk

The Wall Street Journal
By Andy Pasztor
Updated February 6, 2018 8:57 p.m. ET

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. successfully launched the Falcon Heavy rocket Tuesday on its initial test flight, marking another coup for founder Elon Musk .

The blastoff from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, which was closely followed by the global aerospace industry, capped multiple design changes, years of delays and a roughly $1 billion investment by SpaceX, as the company is commonly called.

With throngs of spectators on hand, the closely held Southern California company defied industry critics by flying the world’s most powerful rocket since U.S. astronauts landed on the moon almost five decades ago.

The 230-foot rocket, which featured 27 engines with the combined thrust of some 18 Boeing 747 jumbo jets, climbed into clear skies at 3:45 p.m. local time. It carried a Tesla roadster as a dummy payload and publicity stunt.

The flight was a big boost not only for Mr. Musk—who told reporters the day before that “it’s always personal” when it involves the rocket—but also for the fast-growing cadre of entrepreneurs and startups seeking to turn space into more of a commercial marketplace. Following other milestones SpaceX has notched over the years, Falcon Heavy underscores the demise of what used to be the aerospace industry’s reliance on federal dollars for technological breakthroughs.

Initiated and built using private funds, the rocket is a testament to SpaceX’s persistence. It is emerging at a time of limited government demand for, and potential corporate rivalry to provide, such heavy-lift capabilities.

After a preliminary data review, Mr. Musk cracked jokes during a press conference and told reporters the launch “went as well as one could have hoped.” Noting that early on, “I didn’t really think this would work,” he added that the symbolism of the mission, especially the car streaking toward Mars outfitted with a mannequin dressed in a functional space suit, is an image “that is going to get people excited all over the world.”

Tuesday’s launch countdown had been delayed for about two hours because of winds.

As the rocket ascended, its two side boosters shut down, then separated as expected less than three minutes into the flight. All other systems worked apparently without any significant problems, and the cover protecting the payload separated precisely on cue.

“Everything you could want in a test flight,” said one of the narrators on the company’s video of the launch.

The flight demonstrated that the rocket’s design was able to withstand the stresses of so many engines operating simultaneously at supersonic speeds. That was considered one of the biggest hazards, along with separation of the two side boosters in space.

The pair of boosters returned for a vertical landing not far from the historic pad from which Apollo astronauts lifted off for lunar exploits. The central part of the rocket crashed, however, instead of landing vertically as planned on a floating platform.

But because the company previously pulled off some 20 similar landings by spent boosters, the single failure was more of a blemish than a significant setback to Tuesday’s flight.

The flight prompted repeated applause and cheering among SpaceX employees, particularly because Mr. Musk for months had emphasized the risks and played down the likelihood of success. Just the day before, he had said he considered the chances of pulling off the demonstration flight to be roughly 50-50.

The countdown, however, avoided any technical glitches and the Falcon Heavy’s performance could pave the way for it to carry payloads for paying customers within several months. In a congratulatory email, Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who over the years has been most closely associated with traditional, government-run space programs, called it “a spectacular demonstration of the comeback of Florida’s Space Coast and of the U.S. commercial launch sector.” He said it was good news for civil and Pentagon space programs, and “great news for jobs and the economy.”

SpaceX has revolutionized the launch business by vertically integrating operations, slashing prices and reusing the main engines and lower stage of its existing workhorse rockets, the Falcon 9 fleet. But throughout the years, Mr. Musk has remained focused on a longer-term goal: devising mammoth rockets and spacecraft able to eventually establish colonies on Mars.

The Falcon Heavy was conceived around the beginning of the decade to carry both heavy payloads and people into orbit around Earth, and as a stepping stone to the next generation of rockets with enough thrust to roam the solar system. But on Monday, Mr. Musk surprised the aerospace community by disclosing that the company’s current heavy-lift champion, composed of three Falcon 9 boosters, likely will be reserved for unmanned missions.

Still, the Falcon Heavy could provide a cut-rate price to get the heaviest commercial and U.S. government payloads into orbit.

Booster Club

SpaceX's new Falcon Heavy is more powerful than any rocket currently in use, but still not as large as the Saturn V that launched astronauts to the moon.

SpaceX has evolved quickly since it was founded in 2002 with a handful of employees working out of makeshift offices in a converted warehouse, near a strip mall in a Los Angeles suburb.

Today, Mr. Musk oversees a payroll with more than 5,000 employees at five locations spanning the U.S. plus three different launch sites. The SpaceX team has sketched out plans intended to get its privately funded reusable vehicles to Mars a decade or more ahead of those being developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

SpaceX has confronted a string of accidents during its growth. It struggled through three unsuccessful attempts to launch its Falcon 1 rocket, a tiny, underpowered booster compared with later versions, before finally sending one into orbit in 2008. Six years later, the company lost a Falcon 9 rocket carrying cargo to the international space station after exploded shortly after takeoff. A year later, a Falcon 9 exploded on the launchpad during routine ground tests, destroying a corporate communications satellite and casting a pall over SpaceX’s plans as well as the budding commercial space industry.

But Mr. Musk and his team bounced back from all those setbacks, by redesigning part of the Falcon 9’s fuel system and demonstrating resolve to rev up the tempo of launches.

“We did learn our lessons from both of those” Falcon 9 accidents, Hans Koenigsmann, who heads SpaceX’s reliability efforts, told a House panel last month. “We improved the vehicle.”

Had Tuesday’s launch gone badly, commercial and U.S. government customers still would have been able to rely on a number of fallback options to put their heaviest future payloads into orbit.

A joint rocket-making venture between Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. , now the Pentagon’s primary launch provider, is developing a less-costly alternative with roughly 30% more power than its existing rockets; it is to fly in 2020. Inc. founder Jeff Bezos is committed to working on a more powerful rocket, called New Glenn, slated to be a direct competitor to both the joint venture and SpaceX.

And Orbital ATK Inc. hopes to use federal funds to help spur development of its own entrant in the competition, with a main stage fueled by solid rocket motors, which could launch by 2021.

Original article can be found here ➤

The Wall Street Journal
By Andy Pasztor
February 4, 2018 9:00 a.m. ET

SpaceX’s long-delayed Falcon Heavy rocket, slated for its maiden flight on Tuesday, may be Elon Musk’s biggest contrarian bet since he founded the company more than 15 years ago.

The company spent some $1 billion to develop the new rocket, which had five years of delays and huge technical challenges related to reliably harnessing power from 27 engines. But commercial demand for such a potent heavy-lift booster has eroded significantly since its inception. The primary reason is that both national-security and corporate satellites continue to get smaller and lighter.

The website for Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the company’s formal name, lists four future Falcon Heavy launches carrying customer payloads, versus more than two dozen for its smaller predecessor, the workhorse Falcon 9. Less than two years ago, internal company documents projected a total of as many as 17 Falcon Heavy launches from 2017 to the end of 2019.

When it comes to prospective manned missions, the outlook also seems uncertain. Mr. Musk faces escalating competition—with formidable rivals ranging from Boeing Co. to fellow billionaire and Inc. founder Jeff Bezos —for a prominent role in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s proposed return of astronauts to the moon. Potential Falcon Heavy participation is murkier in longer-term NASA efforts to send humans farther into the solar system, largely because Mr. Musk already has unveiled plans for a substantially larger rocket, dubbed the BFR, targeting Mars.

Separately, NASA is pursuing its own multibillion-dollar Mars rocket. It is unknown how, or even if, Mr. Musk’s privately financed vehicles eventually might mesh with those plans.

Given the high personal and corporate stakes riding on Tuesday’s test flight, Mr. Musk hopes to demonstrate convincingly to naysayers as well as future customers that his team achieved something never done before: Using private funding, it developed and successfully launched a rocket featuring five million pounds of thrust, the most power since the Apollo era’s iconic Saturn V.

If all goes well, the 230-foot behemoth is scheduled to lift off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday afternoon local time, carrying a red Tesla roadster as a mock payload. Renowned for his public relations flair, Mr. Musk, who also runs car maker Tesla Motors Inc., has quipped on Twitter that the car will remain “in deep space for a billion years or so if it doesn’t blow up on ascent.”

The first three minutes will be the most stressful for the rocket—and for SpaceX officials. By then, a pair of side boosters is supposed to separate and push away from the rocket’s main body, something that can’t be fully simulated on the ground. The side boosters and rocket core are intended to return and land vertically, in keeping with SpaceX’s focus on reusability.

The launch illustrates a trend in the rocket business toward “a lot of private investment without clarity about what the market will look like,” according to James Maser, a former industry executive who is now president of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “It’s not obvious what the return on investment will be,” he said.

Yet the sheer engineering audacity, once scoffed at by many of Mr. Musk’s critics, is impressive to many in the industry. Since U.S. astronauts landed on the moon in the late 1960s, scientists have pondered the advantages of such a large, reusable rocket, according to Howard McCurdy, a space historian who teaches public policy at  American University. “It’s something we’ve dreamed about for half a century.”

Mr. Musk’s latest rocket, advertised at under $100 million per mission, boasts roughly twice the lift capacity and one-fourth the cost of its closest heavy-lift competitor. “A launch vehicle in the price range of the Falcon Heavy could make a lunar base economically feasible,” said Mr. McCurdy. “That is huge.”

NASA’s own deep-space rocket, called Space Launch System and anticipated to cost $1 billion per mission, isn’t set to fly until the end of next year at the earliest.  An operational Falcon Heavy is bound to stoke debate over whether SpaceX can implement plans to reach Mars that will turn out to be faster and cheaper than those being developed by the agency or its international partners.

Excitement over the coming launch has prompted throngs of space geeks and space aficionados to snap up tickets for the best viewing spots. The number of media outlets expected to cover the event dwarfs those typically on hand for SpaceX blastoffs.

But space experts aren’t actually rooting for a flawless mission. Instead, they said the optimum scenario is for the engines and navigation systems to basically work as designed, but for some small glitches to surface. That would allow engineers to identify and fix incipient problems before they spread and result in serious or possibly catastrophic failures during later flights.

The weather is expected to cooperate, and all preparations were on track late Saturday. But considering the overall complexity of the rocket and possible hiccups stemming from a recently updated launchpad, a number of space experts said they wouldn’t be surprised to see a postponement.

As SpaceX’s chief executive and top designer, Mr. Musk has consistently tried to dampen expectations. He has said that “at first it sounded easy” to link three Falcon 9’s together, but it ended up being “shockingly difficult” and “crazy hard” due to extra structural stresses and the challenge of getting all the engines to work precisely together.

The worst-case scenario would be if a malfunctioning rocket damages the launch facility. “I hope it makes it far enough away from the pad that it does not cause pad damage,” Mr. Musk said at a conference last summer. “I would consider even that a win.”

Original article can be found here ➤

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've no interest in watching the SuperBowl today, but I do plan on watching this on Tuesday. I may even order hot-wings and chips!