Thursday, August 24, 2006

A picture says a thousand words...

And each word is cool, cool, cool...

By popular demand, I am posting the photos that SpaceX has released regarding the Nasa COTS project. COTS stands for Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, and is intended to build a replacement for the shuttle to send cargo and people to the space station and beyond.

The project culminates in the delivery of cargo to the ISS in 2009. If that is successful, Nasa can extend the agreement to transport crew members to the ISS.

With that aside, here are the pics:

First of all, SpaceX's transportation vehicle will be a rocket, and not a replica of the shuttle.

The Rocket is the Falcon 9, and it will carry the Dragon Space Ship in its ferring, much the same as in Apollo Program. While it is not a space plane, both Falcon 9 and Dragon are fully reusable, which is a major breakthrough in launch vehicle design.

A 3D viewing of the interior of Dragon, in its cargo-carrying configuration:

How Dragon would be configured to carry crew:

How Dragon would connect with the International Space Station:

Dragon docking to the Internation Space Station:

Dragon docked to the ISS:

The part of Dragon that carries the cargo and people back to Earth:

The crew configuration for return to Earth:

As I said, cool, cool, cool...


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Friday, August 18, 2006

And the winner is...

What do you do when really crazy good things happen to you. The kind of crazy good things that not only are too good to be true, but in fact are so rare in occurrence that it becomes almost nonsensical.

Like SpaceX getting to build the next Space Shuttle.

Well, you smile. You smile a really goofy, uncontrolled smile.

Like this one:

A stand-in for a SpaceX employee after the announcement

Seriously though, it is crazy. Here is a company that is barely four years old, but working as hard as they can to make a difference in an industry that was slowly dying from asphyxiation.

And what happens? The government actually considers that a good thing!! Whoa! What happened? I thought the government was supposed to squeeze the last breath out of these sort of efforts.

Turns out that someone different is running the show. Someone that said the way of the past hasn't been as successful as we might like to pretend.

Apparently spending an average of $1.3 Billion per shuttle launch isn't as practical as they once thought. [To be fair, that number is the total money spent on the shuttle program divided by number of shuttles launched, not the marginal cost of each launch - still, that's a lot of pesos]

Un-freaking believable. Congrats to the SpaceX team.

Oh yeah, and if you're wondering when the next launch of Falcon1 will occur, we're targeting before the end of the year.



Disclaimer: Nothing has changed and this is still not official SpaceX information. Please refer to the appropriate people at SpaceX for any and all launch information.

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Saturday, March 25, 2006

Someone's looking out for that satellite...

The team is on Omelek collecting debris.

The rocket impacted on a dead reef about 250 ft away from the launch pad, so most of it is recoverable for analysis.

Amazingly, the satellite was thrown high into the air when the rocket impacted and came crashing down through the roof of our machine shop, landing mostly intact on the floor! One helluva' return trip.

The hole in the machine shop roof is the only significant damage to the island.

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Hi-Res photos of launch

SpaceX has just released photos of the launch showing the fire in the engine.

Falcon on it's way - guidance showed it on track and headed for a successful trip. Looking closely, a likely fuel leak has resulted in a fire in the engine.


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Post-Launch Analysis

As most of you know by now, the rocket was lost.

From Elon this morning:

"Preliminary Fault Analysis
The good news is that all vehicle systems, including the main engine, thrust vector control, structures, avionics, software, guidance algorithm, etc. were picture perfect. Falcon's trajectory was within 0.2 degrees of nominal during powered flight.

However, at T+25s, a fuel leak of currently unknown origin caused a fire around the top of the main engine that cut into the first stage helium pneumatic system. On high resolution imagery, the fire is clearly visible within seconds after liftoff. Once the pneumatic pressure decayed below a critical value, the spring return safety function of the pre-valves forced them closed, shutting down the main engine at T+29s.

It does not appear as though the first stage insulation played a negative role, nor are any other vehicle anomalies apparent from either the telemetry or imaging. Falcon was executing perfectly on all fronts until fire impaired the first stage pneumatic system.

Our plan at this point is to analyze data and debris to be certain that the above preliminary analysis is correct and then isolate and address all possible causes for the fuel leak. In addition, we will do another ground up systems review of the entire vehicle to flush out any other potential issues.

I cannot predict exactly when the next flight will take place, as that depends on the findings of this investigation and ensuring that our next customer is comfortable that all reasonable steps have been taken to ensure reliability. However, I would hope that the next launch occurs in less than six months.

It is perhaps worth noting that those launch companies that succeeded also took their lumps along the way. A friend of mine wrote to remind me that only 5 of the first 9 Pegasus launches succeeded; 3 of 5 for Ariane; 9 of 20 for Atlas; 9 of 21 for Soyuz; and 9 of 18 for Proton. Having experienced firsthand how hard it is to reach orbit, I have a lot of respect for those that persevered to produce the vehicles that are mainstays of space launch today.

I am very encouraged and grateful that our launch customers took the time to call and express their support of SpaceX when their reaction could easily have been the opposite. We will stand by them as they have stood by us. SpaceX is in this for the long haul and, come hell or high water, we are going to make this work.

As SpaceX is a company that believes in maximum disclosure (within the boundaries of proprietary data and ITAR restrictions), I will try to post as much as possible about this launch attempt over the coming weeks.

--- Elon"

Some photos from the webcam:



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Friday, March 24, 2006

Holy Shit!!!!

It launched. It really launched.

Holy shit.

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T-Minus 3 minutes

You know that Video Camera I've mentioned the past few days? The one that caused the static fire to abort earlier in the week?

Well, it's actually pretty cool. We have it there so that we can all see what the rocket sees through the webcam.

Did I mention there was a webcam?

T-minus 3 minutes

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T-Minus 10 minutes

T-minus 10 minutes

The strongback has been lowered and Auto-Sequence has begun.

The previous times that auto-sequence has occurred, the computer has aborted for a variety of reasons:

1. Glitch in the Video Camera
2. Power Surge/drop on the launch pad
3. Ground helium supply disconnected itself prematurely

All of those were enough to abort the launch. Wednesday's static fire had zero issues and no aborts.

There is every reason to expect that we will go all the way to launch.

Very exciting.

Of course, once the rocket takes off, then we see a whole bunch of things that we cannot test.

We want the stages to disconnect; we want the stage 2 engine to fire up correctly; we want the ferring to separate nicely; and we want the satellite to deploy perfectly.

Don't go away when the launch happens. It ain't over until the satellite is up and on.


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T-minus 30 Minutes!

1:54pm CA time

After a small delay, the team is off the island, and we are now outside the window where we would hit the Internation Space Station with the rocket.

Probably worth waiting a little bit as I don't think NASA has much of a sense of humor. It would be funny though, just not funny to them.

Cryogenic chilldown and liquid oxygen load has begun and all systems are green.

Winds and weather looks good. RP1 loading.


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T-minus 2 Hours!

The launch is 2 hours away.

Analysis of the static fire was good.

You'll all be happy to know that in addition to honing our rocket launching skills, we have been honing our webcasting prowess.

Video kills the blogging star:



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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Static Fire Analysis

From all preliminary accounts, the static fire went off without a hitch.

T-Minus 1s

Falcon was held down for almost three seconds of thrust (T+0.5s), part of which the rocket was under its own guidance and control. i.e. it was on it's way before we shut down the engines.

All systems were green and no aborts were triggered.

In past static fires, the computer has alerted us to every tiny thing that goes wrong. In the case of the static fire over the week-end, a glitch in the video camera caused the whole launch to abort. That may not sound like a serious issue, but every piece of the rocket needs to work perfectly before we can assure a smooth launch.

Today and tomorrow will be a time to analyse all the data around the static fire. If nothing negative comes up, the launch will happen on Thursday at 1pm California time.


I'd rather be in Kwaj :(

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Static Fire!!

You know all those times I told you I was broadcasting from Boulder, CO?

Well, I wasn't really. I was somewhere else. I can't say where, or they would have to kill me, and then someone would have to kill you; but I wasn't in Boulder.

This time, sadly, I am in Boulder.

I know you don't believe me, so I did what any other person would do when they need to verify location and date.

See, we can learn from the terrorists...

Of course, for whatever reason the MacBook Pro camera shoots in mirror-image. But if you stare at it for a few minutes, it changes back. Try it. You'll see.

The static fire just went off. It looked successful from the secret webcam, and I'll get an update from control room in a minute.

In the meantime, here's Elon's comments on why the Static Fire was pushed back a few days:

"The countdown and static fire this weekend went smoothly, except that we had a ground helium supply quick disconnect check itself prematurely during engine startup, preventing the engine from reaching full thrust. The next day, we had a glitch with one of our vehicle video cameras. Neither are difficult to fix, but they pushed back our timeline by a few days.

We are planning on another static fire today at about 4pm (CA time), followed by a 1pm launch on March 23 or March 24, provided no issues are detected following analysis of the static fire data.

Another lesson learned for Falcon 9 development: we will test the first flight unit with its actual flight launch mount on our big test stand in Texas ( When development is done, the launch mount and the vehicle will be shipped together to the launch site. For Falcon 1, the test stand was quite different from the launch stand, because its primary purpose was engine development of Merlin ( That forced us to do a lot of launch mount debugging, such as the helium QD problem, in Kwajalein."

Now if I was in Kwaj, I would have been able to say that first hand. And I would be able to tell you right now what is going on in the Control Room.

Sadly, I can't.

But I'll tell you as I get updates.


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Friday, February 10, 2006

Hold Down Fire Video and Photos

The video is up on Check out the link:

Hold Down Fire Video

Elon's official statement on the launch:
"We were very happy to be able to execute a flight countdown all the way to lighting the engine. Although there wasn't a launch this time, we made a lot of progress refining the rocket and launch pad -- all work that needed to be done anyway."

These are great photos, taken by Tom Rogers, the SpaceX camera-man:

Camera on the Umbilical Stand

T-Minus 1/2 second


A great job by the SpaceX guys. While it's only a partial victory, the complexities and variables in getting to launch is so daunting, we're happy to take our progress one small bite at a time.

We also learned a lot and it brings us closer to a smooth launch. Other than a hold-down fire, there's not much more we can test. So we're confident the next time we will make it past T-plus 1.

'til next time.


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Hold-Down Fire Successful!

Rocket fired at T-Zero.

It went into auto-sequence, and fired the engines. After 1 second, system aborts to
prevent the rocket from leaving its stand.

I have a short video, and will post it when I can get it online.


Disclaimer: In case you're wondering, this is still not official SpaceX information. Please refer to the appropriate people at SpaceX for any and all launch information.

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10 minutes to T-Zero

10 minutes to T-Zero.

The erector has been pulled back

Here is the control screen showing the engine status and the full tanks on the left (blue is LOX and Red Rocket Propellant). the engine is shown in the center. From this screen they can see every aspect of the engine status and what's going on.

This is the secondary control room.

The rocket preparing to fire.

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20 minutes to T-Zero

Sorry for the lack of blogging. The editor on was down.

We're now less than 20 minutes away from the hold-down fire.

After taking the ignition system through several tests last night,
they isolated and fixed the timing problem. They fired the ingnitors
several times and are confident that it should not get in the way
again of the hold-down fire.

20 minutes to T-Zero for Hold-Down Fire.

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Thursday, February 09, 2006

Hold-Down Fire Scheduled for tomorrow

So unfortunately we will need to run the hold-down fire again (tomorrow Friday 1pm CA time). What that means is that we will lose our window for a real launch.

The way the Kwaj Military Base works is that they give us a set period when we can launch. Only one launch can happen at a time, and they have to set up warnings across the Atoll that a launch is going to happen.

So since we were not able to finish the test this morning, we need to push the schedule a day and that pushes us outside the launch window.

There were other things though that makes this okay.
1. We've figured out what caused the sequence to stop, but now we need to fix it. It has something to do with the timing of the ignitors, which is measured in milliseconds. I'd tell the problem in detail, but I'm not sure if you have time for me to go get a Phd in Engineering.
2. We want to lower the rocket and check the fuel tanks in the 2nd stage. The readings indicated the pressure was acting incorrectly. Until we lower and see for ourselves, we can't really know what the problem is.
3. The Freakin' LOX! Yes, the same painful problem we experienced in the first launch. Being in the middle of nowhere is really annoying. Doing a second hold-down fire means that we won't have enough LOX for a launch attempt. Even though we are out of the launch window, this is still infuriating.

So anyway, assuming they figure out the ignition issue, we should be on for a Hold-Down fire at 1pm Friday CA time.


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Unloading the fuel

Propellant is being dumped back into the storage tanks. After the vehicle is safe and not holding fuel, the engine will be reset and the data analyzed.

This is probably a two hour process.

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Auto-Sequence aborted

The system stopped the count again.

I'll update once I know more.

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CountDown 3: T-Minus 1 minutes

Fuel tanks are loaded.

Auto-sequence has begun.

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Trouble-shooting the countdown

It's amazing to watch this process.

Whenever something alerts the system, it automatically halts the countdown.
Within minutes, the control room crew huddle around data and discuss their options. It seems to be a discussion of whether to agree with the computer that something is off, or to decide that the computer faced an anomoly (not something that normally occurs).

The amount of data they see and how quickly they see it is absolutely remarkable. The team in Texas (where the engine is tested) and LA (where it was built) see the same data. While the key decision people are on Kwaj, technology enables the entire team to be part of the troubleshooting process if needed.

Something that would take months or even years back in the 70's, can now be done several times in one morning. In just the past two hours, we've had two countdowns and we're now in another after just a 45 minute troubleshooting period.

Pretty incredible.

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T-Minus 15 minutes

We are running the count again. No changes to the sequence.

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Countdown will Restart

It seems like the engine did ignite, but the system stopped the count before it could fire.

They're going to restart the count and take it to engine firing.

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T-Zero and Count Held

We got to T-Zero, everything was a go.

A few seconds before the engine ingited, the count was held.
They are now safing the vehicle and we will find out soon if they will restart the count and take it all the way to ignition.

By the way, did I mention I was in my bathrobe?

Mmm... nothing like the soft touch of TerryCloth.

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T-Minus 3 minutes

We are 3 minutes out and everything's good.

The erector has been lowered.

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T-Minus 10 minutes

Fuel tanks are topped off and the count is moving smoothly.

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Just in case you think this might be official SpaceX info, you're wrong.

I'll remind you that I'm actually sitting in my basement in Boulder, in my bathrobe, dreaming up all this stuff. If you choose to use any of my blog for public dissemination, you are likely to embarrass yourself.

Please don't embarrass yourself. Really, it's you I'm worried about.

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The count is on again

We are just about to go into the count again.

Count will be pick up at 8:30am (five minutes).

This is what it sounded like happened:
There seemed to be an incorrect step in the sequence. When power was transferred to the rocket batteries from the ground batteries, there was a reset of one of the controllers that caused them to call for a hold on the count. Not a big deal, but enough for them to hold the countdown and check everything.

We're back on!

The Control Room
Branden. If you're nice to him, he'll publicize the webcast.

T-Minus 15 minutes and counting.

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Image Summary

Satellite is having difficulty, so I've finally got some images up.

While we wait for the decision on restarting the count, I'll give you a quick summary of what's been happening:

7am Kwaj time. The rocket is almost fully fueled. T-Minus 60 minutes.

The control room (Elon on the left)

The engine at T-Minus 10 minutes

The erector moving out of the way at T-Minus 5.

Currently the erector has been put back in the upright position. We are waiting on the decision to re-cycle the count (start the count again at a designated T-Minus point).

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T-Minus 1 and CountDown on Hold

Something came up during auto-sequence. The count is on hold.

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T-Minus 5 Minutes to HOLD DOWN FIRE!

We're in the control room and the Wet-Dress is now 5 hours into it.

T-Minus 5 minutes to the hold-down fire.

A wet-dress is where we fuel up the rocket and run through the entire count-down. Most times, we don't do a hold-down fire. In this case, we're taking it all the way to zero count-down, and starting the engine. The engine fires for about 3 seconds before aborting. At 5 seconds, it wants to lift off, so it's pretty important that everything not only work correctly, but also abort correctly.

The stressful part of a wet-dress and hold-down fire, is that the only positive outcome is the status quo.

In the previous two launch attempts, we never made it all the way to a hold-down fire, so in essence, if we make all the way to T-Zero, we're ahead. A hold-down fire was successful back in November, so it has been done, just not when it counts.

[images not uploaded due to satellite connection trouble]

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Ever flown in a Huey?

Yeah it's cool. If you like that sort of thing.

No great shakes. It's really an everyday experience cruising over a remote island in the Pacific in the most famous helicopter of all time. Did I mention that this one operated during Vietnam? Whatever. I do this sort of thing all the time.

Alright, I give in. It was awesome.

The Huey taking off from Kwaj.

Me enjoying the ride.

Elon enjoying the ride.

The Pilot concealing his glee.

As we approach the island, we see the rocket laying down on the ground (this picture was taken before it was re-erected).

The island from the Huey.

Landing on the island, we were obligated to do the requisite "duck under the blades" walk.

So yes it was fun, and yes, you wish you were here.

So back to the rocket. Big things going on tomorrow. We tested the engine movement today, everything's good for tomorrow's Wet-Dress and Hold-Down Fire.

Wet-Dress is where we load up the fuel into the rocket. The hold-down fire is where we hold down the rocket and press "Go". I'll be transmitting images as fast as I can. It should be quite a show.

Currently T-Minus 41 hours to launch.

And now... I'm going scuba diving.



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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Are we crazy?

We're back in Kwaj for Number 3, and I thought I'd take the time to answer the question that's on most of your minds: "Are we crazy?"

The short answer is no.

Well, not really. Actually, maybe we are crazy... but in a good way. More Evel Knievel crazy, and less Aunt Ethel crazy.

SpaceX Crazy.

Crazy Crazy.

But truthfully, we really do believe what we're doing will work. We aren't doing it because rockets are cool. They are, and that is a nice fringe benefit, but that's not the reason.

Did I say rockets were cool?

So why are we here, and how are we not crazy?

It's quite simple, really. The Space Industry has been stagnating since the '70's. Almost all work is cost-plus, where you are punished with lower revenue if you are more efficient. Public perception takes priority over project success, resulting in enormous cost just to cover one's rear-end. And finally, the behemoths that have monopolized the space industry have no incentive to ever change.

In other words, what we have here is a multi-billion dollar opportunity.

SpaceX has introduced the world's first all-new orbital rocket design in over 10 years. The reason is that the existing designs, based on technology from the '70's, were high cost and low reliability. Not a great combination as it turns out. SpaceX looked at what was out there and decided to try a different approach: low cost and high reliability. It's a simple rocket, and that's the point.

It's also the only semi-reusable rocket apart from the Space Shuttle. All other rockets are single-use only.

The SpaceX launch team in Kwaj is less than 30 people. When another rocket company launches in Kwaj, they bring 300 people. What they do here is beyond us.

The entire SpaceX team on Kwaj.

When other rocket companies need something done, they requisition the right forms, talk to the right people, go back to the right forms, try again with another set of right people, go back to the forms (also known as the TPS reports), and eventually go a little more postal each day.

When SpaceX needs something done, they do it, and they do it fast.

Case in point:
On Saturday night it was discovered that the power distribution boards were not operating properly and that the capacitors needed to be upgraded. This is very difficult to fix on a remote tropical island 5,000 miles away from America.

On Sunday, they lowered the rocket, separated the two stages and removed the boards - just in time for one of the SpaceX engineers to hop on a plane back to California. The team then found a supplier for the capacitors that was open on Sunday. They were in Minnesota. Immediately an intern was put on a plane to fly up and get the capacitors.

The engineer and the intern got back to the SpaceX offices at about the same time. 2:45pm Monday. Over the next 8 hours, they replaced the capacitors on the boards, tested them for their ability to withstand heat, cold and vibrations, and packaged them for the trip back. They got on a plane at 10:30pm and arrived in Kwaj this morning at 6am.

They then spent the day replacing the boards and re-attaching the stages. As of 5pm Kwaj time, the rocket is attached and they are about to re-erect it. Total turn-around time: 80 hours.

Falcon 1 with stages separated as they install the boards.

Bulent Altan - the Engineer who flew back to CA, now in the 50th hour of his day

So yes, pretty crazy. But in a good way. ;)

By the way, did I say I flew in a Huey today?


Note: this blog is for entertainment purposes only and intended only for viewing by my friends. This is not endorsed by SpaceX, or part of SpaceX's official communications. Please don't trust a word I say. Really. For all you know, I'm making it all up and I'm actually sitting in my basement somewhere in Boulder.

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