John Matson is an associate editor at Scientific American focusing on space, physics and mathematics. Follow on Twitter
Private access to space took a giant leap forward Friday with a successful test launch of the Falcon 9 rocket, developed and built by SpaceX, a venture headed by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk.
The two-stage Falcon 9, which stands about 48 meters tall*, lifted off from a Cape Canaveral launchpad at 2:45 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time carrying a dummy capsule that could soon deliver supplies to the International Space Station—and, one day, even astronauts to orbit. Less than 10 minutes after launch, according to the SpaceX live Webcast, the rocket’s upper-stage engine shut down, having delivered its payload safely to Earth orbit.
Despite myriad delays in executing the test, including a false start at the launch pad Friday, success in the inaugural launch of the Falcon 9 marks a major achievement for SpaceX. The company’s smaller Falcon 1 rocket took four launches to achieve its first full success.
Hopes are especially high for SpaceX in light of President Obama’s budget request, released in February, for fiscal year 2011. Obama’s plan for NASA calls for terminating the space agency’s own line of Ares rockets, which had been intended to boost astronauts and cargo into space, and contracting with private operators to provide those launch services instead.
In 2008 NASA announced that it had selected SpaceX as one of the providers of resupply missions to the space station through 2016. At the time, the space agency said it had ordered 12 flights from SpaceX at an estimated cost of about $1.6 billion. According to a SpaceX launch manifest, the first Falcon 9 resupply mission to the International Space Station will not launch before 2011.
The Falcon 9 is powered by SpaceX’s Merlin engine, which runs on liquid oxygen and kerosene rocket fuel. The Falcon 9′s first stage boasts nine Merlin engines to lift the more than 300-metric-ton rocket off the ground. After nearly three minutes of flight the first stage separates and falls away as a single Merlin engine takes over to power the upper stage to orbit.
Image credits of first stage flight [top] and second stage after separation [bottom]: SpaceX
*Correction (6/18/2010): The height of the rocket was originally identified as 55 meters, which is the planned height of the operational Falcon 9 with a satellite enclosure. The test rocket launched June 4 was 48 meters tall.