Chair Force Engineer

Friday, July 29, 2005

Rocket Booster

The guest of honor on base today was Elon Musk, brainchild of the SpaceX company. He immediately came off as a person with infectious enthusiasm and a desire to leave his positive mark on the world. I must admit that his zeal for space was infectious. He was so bold to declare that exploring space was more important than curing cancer. He explained that most cancers are already treatable, and that the majority of terminal cancer patients would only see a few more years added to their lives if their cancer were cured, due to their advanced age.

Elon's ultimate vision is to make mankind a multi-planet species. Part of that vision is a self-sustaining colony on Mars. That's the kind of rhetoric that gets me excited.

The real excitement came later, when Musk made the first public comments on his Falcon IX launcher. It's essentially a Falcon V with four more engines on the first stage, plus a larger 5 meter payload shroud. Robert Bigelow (Space Gigolo) originally wanted to launch his "Nautilus" space hotel on a Falcon V, but development delays caused him to turn to the Russian "Dnepr" instead. Musk was able to get Bigelow to agree to a Falcon IX launch for his next space hotel module in 2007.

If Falcon V is Musk's replacement for the Delta II, Falcon IX is the competitor to Delta IV and Atlas V. The Falcon IX can also be clustered into a "heavy" variant, akin to the Delta IV Heavy. Space station resupply ships and space tourist capsules are also in the cards.

At this stage, I can't tell if Musk is the savior of the space launch industry, or just another smooth-talking crackpot like we have seen too many times in this industry. For instance, details on the recovery scheme for the Falcon I first stage are very sketchy. Where are the recovery ship and divers? Is there a way of keeping the sea water out of the engine (or, as my supervisor suspects, is the engine thrown away with only the tankage reused?)

A lot is riding on the inaugural launch of Falcon I this fall (aside from the Air Force Academy's satellite.) My hope of hopes is that it successfully achieves orbit. The proof will be in the (orbital) pudding.