SpaceX makes history as world’s first private space vehicle to reach orbit

29 Sep 2008

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SpaceX Falcon 1 space flight

Falcon 1, the launch vehicle developed by Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) has successfully launched and achieved Earth orbit – the first privately developed fuel rocket to orbit the Earth.

SpaceX, a winner of the NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services competition (COTS), is now in a position to help fill the gap in US spaceflight to the International Space Station (ISS) when the Space Shuttle retires in 2010.

Falcon 1, designed from the ground up by SpaceX, lifted off at 4:15 pm Pacific Time (12.15am GMT) from the Reagan Test Site on Omelek Island at the US Army Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific, some 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii.

Preliminary data indicates that Falcon 1 achieved an elliptical orbit of 500 km by 700 km, 9.2 degrees inclination – exactly as targeted.

Falcon 1 carried into orbit a payload mass simulator of approximately 165 kg (364 lbs), designed and built by SpaceX specifically for this mission. Consisting of a hexagonal aluminium alloy chamber 1.5 metres (5 feet) tall, the payload remains attached to the second stage as it orbits Earth.

This was the fourth launch of the Falcon 1 launch vehicle and second flight for the new SpaceX-developed Merlin 1C regeneratively-cooled engine.

A ‘hold before lift-off’ system was used to enhance reliability by permitting all launch systems to be verified as functioning nominally before launch was initiated. A single SpaceX-developed Kestrel engine powered the Falcon 1 second stage.

SpaceX is developing a family of launch vehicles intended to increase the reliability and reduce the cost of both manned and unmanned space transportation, ultimately by a factor of 10.

“This is a great day for SpaceX and the culmination of an enormous amount of work by a great team,” said Elon Musk, CEO and CTO of SpaceX.

“The data shows we achieved a super-precise orbit insertion – middle of the bull’s-eye – and then went on to coast and restart the second stage, which was icing on the cake,” Musk added.

By John Kennedy

Pictured: Falcon 1 lift-off. Picture courtesy of SpaceX

SpaceX Falcon 1 space flight

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com