31 – SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Dragon accomplishments in perspective


Recently, Space Exploration Technologies Inc. (SpaceX) was successful in completing its first and final demonstration mission to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). SpaceX used its Falcon 9 unmanned expendable launch vehicle to launch its Dragon cargo capsule. SpaceX mission controllers maneuvered the capsule into close proximity with the ISS where it was grappled by the ISS’s robotic arm and then berthed to the ISS. Following unloading of the capsule, it was unberthed, released, and then performed a deorbit burn leading to a splashdown in the ocean for recovery. This particular mission was the third flight of the Falcon 9 and the second mission flying a Dragon capsule.

(Photo of Dragon capsule captured by the ISS robotic arm; photo courtesy of NASA)

SpaceX is one of two companies that won a contract with NASA in 2006, under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration, to develop the ability to deliver cargo to the ISS as a replacement for the Space Shuttle. As reported in Space News (20120528), about $396 million will have been expended in payments to SpaceX for work completed under this contract. The original contract with SpaceX called for payments totaling $278 million for the completion of three demonstration missions leading to the successful berthing of the capsule to the ISS. SpaceX combined the second and third demonstration missions leading to completion of this phase of the contract with this recently completed mission. This demonstration phase was originally proposed to be completed in the third calendar quarter of 2009 making the effort about 32 months behind the original proposed schedule. (Some of this delay may be appropriately attributed to regulatory review.) During this schedule extension, NASA paid an additional $118 million to SpaceX according to Space News.


Let’s put this demonstration into perspective. Many nations now possess the capability of building an expendable launch vehicle capable of placing a satellite into Earth orbit. This was first achieved by the former Soviet Union in the late 1950s and quickly followed by the United States (per a national security decision to let the former Soviet Union establish the international legal precedent of overflying another nation with a satellite). With only a few exceptions where the Space Shuttle was used to deploy a satellite, the U.S. has relied on expendable launch vehicles for unmanned cargo missions for over 50 years. Currently, the Atlas V and the Delta IV Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELV) are used for unmanned government space launches in the medium to large payload category. Orbital Sciences’ Pegasus system has been used for small payloads since 1990.


Space X has developed and flown two launch systems in their Falcon series. The smaller Falcon 1 — ~1,500 lb payload to LEO — has had five missions. Of these, the first three missions failed. The first mission was in 2006, just months prior to signing the COTS contract. The first successful mission was in 2008, about two years after the COTS contract was signed. The fifth Falcon 1 mission flew in 2009.


For the COTS effort, SpaceX proposed the use of the larger, but yet-to-be-developed Falcon 9 with a payload capability of roughly 23,000 lb. This launch vehicle development cost has been reported to be about $300 million with a comparable amount for the Dragon capsule. Three Falcon 9 missions have now flown with all being successful. The first in June, 2010, with a boiler-plate Dragon capsule and the second in Dec., 2010 with the first Dragon capsule. The third mission with the Dragon capsule that berthed with the ISS was just completed. An Orbital Sciences-led team is developing a comparable cargo delivery capability under the same contract with NASA. This team has yet to demonstrate its capability. However, it started about two years after SpaceX when Orbital Sciences replaced Rocketplane Kistler, the other original contract winner.


The SpaceX achievement of launching a payload into earth orbit in 2006 came just shy of 50 years after the first successful U.S. mission in 1958. For perspective in aerospace technology development, 50 years is length of time between the Wright Brother’s first flight and the end of the Korean War in 1953 when jet fighters were in common use, the X-15 hypersonic research aircraft was under development, and the U.S. was about to begin the development of the Mach 3 SR-71 aircraft.


The U.S. demonstrated the ability to put two spaceflight systems into close proximity in low Earth orbit (LEO) during the Gemini program in the 1960s — again, about 50 years ago. The same efforts demonstrated the ability to do rendezvous and docking. The former Soviet Union developed the Progress series unmanned supply capsules in the late 1970s to resupply their space station by docking with the station. These remain operational for supplying the ISS. Both the European and Japanese space agencies have operational unmanned supply capsules for ISS support.


SpaceX’s Dragon unmanned capsule enables the U.S. to duplicate these Russian, European, and Japanese capabilities. However, with the exception that the capsules are recoverable, enabling the return of some amount of cargo, the operational mission capability is not expanded. (The Russian Progress series had the ability to return a modest payload up through at least 2009.)


The ability of a new-start company to reach this level of success in about 10 years is not insignificant. That SpaceX is proud of its accomplishments is laudable and appropriate. The U.S., however, has not significantly advanced its spacefaring operational capabilities under this effort. (Note that cargo delivery is a routine operational undertaking making this a “spacefaring” as opposed to a “space exploration” activity.) It is, in fact, a step backwards from the level of capability provided by the Space Shuttle.


During the competition for this contract, both Boeing and Lockheed Martin proposed the use of the European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) launched using, respectively, the demonstrated Delta IV and Atlas V launch systems. That NASA chose to invest in an entirely new launch system and cargo delivery system was a political choice that appears to be centered on the prospects of human transport to the ISS using the Dragon capsule — the so-called commercial human spaceflight undertaking.


A primary news reporting point made on the completion of the SpaceX Dragon mission to the ISS was that this was the “first privately-funded” mission to the ISS. Multiple articles discussing SpaceX indicate that private investment totals about $200 million. NASA has invested around $800 million in SpaceX, according to Space News. Thus, the ratio of total government “investment” to total private investment in SpaceX would appear to be about 4:1. Describing this as a “privately-funded” effort would appear to stretch the point. My opinion is that Falcon 9 and Dragon would not have happened absent the Government’s $800 million investment.


Concluding points:


  1. Dragon development effort was 32 months behind schedule and used an additional 40% in government funding.
  2. Dragon performance is comparable to the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle that has successfully flown twice to the ISS.
  3. Dragon capsule was successfully recovered following the two cargo demonstration missions showing a capsule return and recovery capability comparable to that of manned U.S. missions of the 1960s and 1970s.
  4. Government investment in SpaceX appears to have been 4X the total private investment in all SpaceX activities to date.
  5. SpaceX has joined many companies and many countries in demonstrating the ability to deliver payloads to Earth orbit.
  6. The Government chose to “invest” $800 million into the development of the Falcon 9 and the Dragon capsule and award a delivery contract, valued at about $1.6 billion, to a new company with, in 2006, no demonstrated success and with its initial efforts focusing on duplicating existing launch and cargo delivery capabilities. (Or was the real primary “selling point” the proposed use of the Dragon capsule to transport humans to the ISS?)


    The last point leads to the question of what level of funding would be appropriate for the Government to invest in establishing a substantial new spacefaring operational capability — perhaps, fully-reusable space access for passengers and cargo using FAA airworthiness certified systems. Further, what is to be gained with the planned use of the Dragon capsule for human transport to the ISS? These are two interesting questions to ponder.



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    Mike Snead

    AIAA Associate Fellow



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