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A lot is riding on SpaceX rocket

The Hawthorne firm's Falcon 9 is a major contender to cheaply carry astronauts and cargo into orbit.

March 08, 2010|By W.J. Hennigan
  • NEAR A COUNTDOWN: The Falcon 9 rocket from Space Exploration Technologies stands in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Its first test launch could come in April.
NEAR A COUNTDOWN: The Falcon 9 rocket from Space Exploration Technologies… (Space Exploration Technologies )

A new rocket 18 stories tall and waiting to be launched from a pad in Cape Canaveral, Fla., could determine the fate of a private aerospace venture in Hawthorne -- and even possibly NASA's space program.

The Falcon 9 booster, developed by Space Exploration Technologies Corp., is going through final preparations for its maiden test flight and could blast off as early as next month.

The rocket is a major contender to assume NASA's responsibilities in hauling astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station in the wake of President Obama's budget proposal to outsource space travel to private businesses.

The eyes of the U.S. government will be on the launch to see whether the Falcon 9 has the right stuff. NASA has invested more than $200 million in seed money to help the company, also known as SpaceX, develop and build the nine-engine rocket, and has an additional $1.6 billion on the table with a contract for 12 flights to transport cargo in the coming years.

"Our success is vital to the success of the American space program and servicing the space station," said Elon Musk, the company's founder and chief executive. "However, we do not need to be successful on the first flight. It's rare for a new vehicle to have 100% success right away."

The rocket industry is notoriously difficult to enter and littered with failed projects. Even the best rocket systems often require several attempts before they achieve success. SpaceX's first rocket, the smaller, single-engine Falcon 1, failed three times before it carried a satellite into space.

But when it does blast off, the Falcon 9 will be the first new rocket to be launched from Cape Canaveral since 2002. The rocket is upright at Space Launch Complex 40 after spending the last several weeks undergoing assembly and fuel testing. The company plans to test-fire the engines this week.

Although Musk wants the first launch to go without a hitch, he said it doesn't have to be flawless. Musk believes that he needs to have a successful launch in four tries before serious doubts are raised about the rocket's technology.

"At a certain point, we need to show the world we can put the Falcon 9 into orbit," he said.

After making millions when he sold online payment business PayPal Inc. in 2002, Musk started SpaceX and electric car company Tesla Motors Inc. in Palo Alto.

SpaceX, which employs about 900 people, makes its rockets in a sprawling facility that once housed Boeing 747 production lines in Hawthorne.

Part of Musk's selling point -- and what has attracted the government's attention -- is the company's claims that it can develop and launch rockets at a fraction of the cost of the current generation of spacecraft. The average space shuttle flight costs about $1 billion, he said. Flights from SpaceX will run around $100 million.

This is the same sales pitch that many private businesses have made to the government, said Peter H. Diamandis, chairman of the X Prize Foundation, a nonprofit group that sponsored a $10-million competition to develop a private manned rocket.

"A lot of business plans are dependent upon the ultimate success of the Falcon 9," Diamandis said. "It represents a price point that numerous commercial ventures use to make their argument. The Obama administration has seen this, and that's why they've decided to go this direction in their proposed budget."

Last month, NASA awarded $50 million in research funds to five private companies to design prototypes for a vehicle that could carry crews to the International Space Station. It was part of NASA's new direction under Obama's budget proposal.

The rocket launch would represent a milestone for the commercial space business, said Mike Gruntman, professor of astronautics at USC, who consulted SpaceX after its failed Falcon 1 launches.

But he said few should expect the Falcon 9 rocket to be successful on its first attempt.

"Something may go wrong on the first test, but that's OK," he said. "I have no doubt they'll learn from their mistakes and get it right. They're aware of how much is at stake."

william.hennigan@

latimes.com

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