I’m fascinated by private spaceflight — it’s amazing to see private companies develop technologies and complete feats that were once the domain of governments with enormous budgets — and today saw another milestone. SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 1 rocket for the first time in September last year after three failed attempts, and today it repeated that feat with a paying customer, launching the RazakSAT satellite for the Malaysian government.
Launching a satellite doesn’t sound too impressive, but it’s quite an achievement when you consider that SpaceX has been able to develop an all-new liquid-fueled launch vehicle from scratch within just a few years. In the last 30 years, only three new liquid-fueled rocket engines have been designed within the US, and two of them are on the Falcon 1; the other is on Boeing’s military-funded Delta IV. Other recent US rockets, like the (also military-funded) Atlas V, are based on Russian engines.
Falcon 1 is just a starting point for SpaceX — the real deal is the Falcon 9, which can deliver 25-times more weight in to orbit than the Falcon 1. It’s due for its first test flight later this year, followed by further test flights and eventual cargo deliveries to the International Space Station using SpaceX’s Falcon spacecraft. Perhaps Falcon 9 will suffer initial failures, as the Falcon 1 did, but I’d love to see it succeed, and given that Falcon 9 is based almost entirely on technology that’s now been tested on Falcon 1, SpaceX may just pull it off.