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Hopes of Start-Up Rocket Company Are Riding on First Launch

The Falcon 1, built in El Segundo, is designed to send satellites into orbit at a greatly reduced cost.

November 26, 2005|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

A fledgling El Segundo firm that hopes to cut the cost of sending satellites into orbit is scheduled to launch its first payload today from a remote western Pacific base in the Marshall Islands.

Initially slated for Friday, the launch of the Falcon 1 rocket was postponed to avoid conflicts with a missile defense system test at the request of the U.S. Army, which owns the launch pad on Omelek Island, said a spokeswoman for Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the rocket's builder.

The launch will be crucial for Elon Musk, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has risked much of his fortune on the idea of developing reliable rockets that cost a fraction of the going rate for satellite launchers.

Musk co-founded Internet payment company PayPal Inc. and made $150 million from its sale to EBay Inc. in 2002 before starting the rocket company, also known as SpaceX, that year. Musk has spent about $100 million of his own money to develop the rocket.

But technical problems, a change in the payload and shifting the launch site from Florida to Omelek on the Kwajalein Atoll led to the first launch being delayed by two years. The payload is a small satellite built by Air Force Academy cadets. It is funded by the Pentagon.

Falcon 1 is designed to undercut Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Pegasus rocket, which carries small payloads and is launched from an airborne plane. If Falcon 1 is successful, Musk's plans to build larger rockets that would compete against those from Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., which have lifted most of the nation's civil and military vehicles into space.

Analysts said Musk would need to successfully launch several rockets to make a mark in the industry, which is notoriously difficult to enter and is littered with failed rocket developments. In the last decade, at least two dozen entrepreneurs have failed at developing low-cost rockets. Efforts to reduce cost have come at the expense of reliability, analysts said.

Moreover, his effort comes during a lull in satellite launches that has shrunk the demand for rockets. With a downturn in the telecommunications industry, there have been only a handful of commercial launches a year.

"It will be several years before we can say it marks the beginning of a new space company," said John Pike, space policy analyst for GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Va. "It's too soon to say either it's going to be another road kill or it's going to be a new kid on the block."

Musk, who has a reputation as an entrepreneur with a golden touch, believes that he has the right formula for building reliable low-cost rockets. The Falcon 1 costs $6.7 million to launch, less than half the cost of the rockets that lift similar payload into space. It is part of a family of rockets including the mid-size Falcon 5 and the heavy-lift Falcon 9 that the firm plans to build.

In addition to designing the rocket from scratch and taking advantage of new technologies, the Falcon rocket is cheaper because it has two stages instead of the usual three, uses fewer moving parts and takes less time to prepare for launch, the company said. The first stage is also reusable, eliminating the cost of building a new one.

About 150 people work for SpaceX in El Segundo, where the rocket is designed and built.

Musk, who will watch the launch in person, could not be reached Friday for comment. But he acknowledged last week that "the history of rocket development is replete with failures and very few successes."

"We hope to be one of those successes," he said before departing for the Marshall Islands.

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

Cost factor

If successful, SpaceX's Falcon 1 could lower the cost of putting small payloads into low orbit. Here's how the Falcon compares with other launch vehicles.

Rocket / Cost (in millions)

Athena 2 (U.S.) / $26.9

Taurus (U.S.) / $21.3

Pegasus XL (U.S.) / $15.2

Cosmos (Russia) / $14.6

START (Russia) / $8.4

Falcon 1 (U.S.) / $6.7

Sources: SpaceX, Futron Corp. Graphics reporting by Tom Reinken

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