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Space Science

Paypal Founder's Merlin Rocket Engine Fires Up 252

Posted by timothy
from the no-milquetoast-nasa-puttering dept.
Baldrson writes "Wired News reports that after 2 years of development, Space Exploration Technology Corp ('SpaceEx') successfully test-fired their new LOX/Kerosene Merlin rocket engine for the 160 seconds required for orbit. SpaceEx was founded by Elon Musk from the proceeds of the 2002 sale of his prior start-up, Paypal, to Ebay. According to Musk, 5 Merlins bundled with the first stage of SpaceEx's powerful Falcon V booster will launch 5 people to orbit by 2010, thereby winning America's Space Prize which was endowed by Robert Bigelow."
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Paypal Founder's Merlin Rocket Engine Fires Up

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  • by zonker (1158) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @07:36PM (#11403273) Homepage Journal
    he can just sell the thing on ebay...
  • Wow! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by TheOriginalRevdoc (765542) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @07:37PM (#11403278) Journal
    Amazing! They managed to get sixty-year-old technology to work!

    This is great news. Now, if only they can get their valve radios to work, they'll be in business.
    • Yes, it's just crazy that a new rocket engine actually would be tested before being used for launching people into space. Whatever were they thinking? We've had solid fuel rockets since ancient China, surely we don't need testing any new rockets built since then. Just build them, attach them to the spacecraft and off you go in a most spectacular way.
  • by Spy Handler (822350) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @07:40PM (#11403316) Homepage Journal
    See, you don't need exotic new technologies for cheap(er) space access... just cut the NASA fat.
  • SpaceEx (Score:3, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @07:42PM (#11403332)
    That just screams a FedEx lawsuit.
  • Any word on how they get the lucky orbiters back down? I thought NASA had great difficulty with heat shield design, implementation, etc.
    • by Chairboy (88841) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @07:53PM (#11403446) Homepage
      NASA had trouble making cheap, low cost, light weight re-usable heat shields.

      For each of those requirements you scrap, you save a boatload of money. If you equip your capsules (no need for big wings like the shuttle) with one use heatshields, you might incur a weight penalty, but you can use 40 year old Apollo or Soyuz technology. If you can squeeze an extra half a percent of efficiency from your engines or start with more boost then you think you'd need, you can chuck the light weight requirement.

      Commercial space flight will be different from government in a few important ways. I suspect that being able to design your craft without congressional 'input' will help. A lot of the things that make the shuttle complicated and expensive to run are leftover from 1970s requirements that it serve everyone, from civilian NASA to the NRO (spy sats) to the Air Force (dropping bombs on USSR using once around orbits and landing back at Vandenburg).
      • Commercial space flight will be different from government in a few important ways.

        Yes. High on the list is economics... And tossing your heatshield after each flight is not economical at all.
        I suspect that being able to design your craft without congressional 'input' will help.
        When we have a spacecraft designed with Congressional input, we'll have a data point to compare to. As it is, all Congress contributed was a budget cap... Which pretty much everyone has to live with inside and outside the Beltway.
        A lot of the things that make the shuttle complicated and expensive to run are leftover from 1970s requirements that it serve everyone,
        Umm... No. It's complicated and expensive because Congress declined to produced Saturn's for cargo delivery and then declined to fund a space station in paralell with the Shuttle. This forced the Shuttle to become a cargo craft (as opposed to the passenger craft it originally was) and then forced it to have a far higher degree of self-sufficiency to support free-flight missions. It's also complicated and expensive because in many ways it's a first generation system. It's also complicated because it operates in a series of harsh enviroments. It's also expensive because NASA kept trading R&D costs for operational costs - rather than admitting the thing could not be done and that a massive redesign and delay was in order.

        The Shuttle was never *required* to 'serve everyone', that was a NASA creation in order to build political support for the craft. The only real impact of that was the wing (for high cross-range) and to some extent the tiles. (A tile system was already baselined long before the design was mutated from a short duration passenger taxi into the ungainly thing it became.)
        • by qbwiz (87077) <john@bauma n f a m i l y . com> on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @10:41PM (#11404668) Homepage
          Yes. High on the list is economics... And tossing your heatshield after each flight is not economical at all.
          That depends upon what your heatshield is made of. If it's made from the same tiles that make up the space shuttle, it would be expensive. If it's made from carbon phenolic, or a similar material, it would most likely cost less to replace it every time than to boost a more durable material into orbit. That's not to mention the fact that a tile system or similar would still have to be inspectedand partially replaced after every flight, reducing any gains in cost.

          Remember that for every pound you put in orbit, you just spent thousands of dollars. Those thousands of dollars could provide for a lot of work making a heat shield on the ground.
          • by FleaPlus (6935) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @11:28PM (#11404945) Journal
            It's interesting to note that the Chinese made cheap, disposable wooden heatshields [hobbyspace.com]. It's certainly not the most glamorous thing around, but it gets the job done.

            From the link:

            The Chinese had developed another novel but usable "low tech" solution. They glued up wooden blocks, appropriately contoured, with the end grain facing the reentry air stream. The wooden heat shield would char and ablate during reentry, just like the caulk material on the Apollo capsules. The fact that you could build a serviceable heat shield for reentry from space out of wood certainly showed that the basic problem was not insurmountably difficult, so Tom had always regarded this too as a rather straight-forward challenge. ... Wood can't withstand directly the temperatures of reentry, but for that relatively short time, it can resist those temperatures by gradually eroding. ... As the wood heated, a carbon ceramic char formed on the outer surface, and the volatiles, or fluids, in the wood behind the char flowed up through cracks in the char. Heat was radiated away from the charred surface, and the interior was kept cool by the outward movement of the cooler heat-absorbing volatiles flowing towards the hot side.
        • And tossing your heatshield after each flight is not economical at all.
          I have to disagree... I have proprietary pricing info from ablative heatshield vendors about historical projects and ranges for new ones which indicates that ablative TPS systems should be dirt-cheap. First unit prices under a megabuck cheap.
    • Water, sprayed at high pressure, stored in a pressure vessel would provide a low-weight, high efficiency, reusable, heat shield.
  • Uh oh (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Rosco P. Coltrane (209368) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @07:44PM (#11403352)
    SpaceEx was founded by Elon Musk from the proceeds of the 2002 sale of his prior start-up, Paypal, to Ebay.

    Now here's one person who hasn't left the proceeds of his sale into his PayPal account. I mean, imagine that, buying rocket and space stuff like that, they'd have frozen his account immediately, for no reason, without any explanation besides "what goes on looks strange".

    Well done Elon! (and when you have time, please tell your former employees to f*)(*&@$ing give me back my $150 in my account they locked up about, oh, 5 years ago...)
  • Never knew that the famous RR Merlin engine was a rocket...Oh wait...

    StarTux
  • by DogDude (805747) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @07:46PM (#11403381) Homepage
    Does that mean that they used all stolen credit cards and "frozen" account assets to pay for this ridiculous thing? That gives me a warm fuzzy feeling...
  • DOD Sat launch? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by crunk (844923)
    FTA:

    In March, once the final checkouts are completed -- akin, said Musk, to software beta testing -- Falcon I will lift a Department of Defense satellite called TacSat-1 into orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

    Do commercial entities normally do DoD satellite launches? That doesn't seem right to me.

    • Do commercial entities normally do DoD satellite launches? That doesn't seem right to me.

      Why not? The DoD pays companies to build its weapons, vehicles, planes, etc. Why on earth wouldn't they pay companies to launch their satellites?
    • You mean companies that operate for profit like Boeing or Lockheed? The real difference is this company doesn't have a reliability record yet. I'm sure they satellite didn't cost much and isn't terribly important, but it's good to see a young company getting it's foot in the door.
  • by TK2K (834353)
    It seems to me the original idea of NASA is actualy going to work! NASA was created in the begining to combine all of the branches of the government's space research in one location, to pionere new technologies, then, after a few decades, transfer the exploration of space over to the privite sector. Needless to say, NASA is stil in existance. What is impresive about this is the fact that someone from a company is doing a project like this. The problem with the idea of space being exploited by companies is
  • NOT PayPal founder (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Elon Musk is not a founder of PayPal. Elon Musk founded X.com. PayPal was founded by Max Levchin and Peter Thiel. PayPal and X.com were joined "in a merger of equals" afterwards.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @07:55PM (#11403468)
    It just occured to me that the guys doing these space ships are like the rich guys a few centuries ago mounting ocean expeditions, as much for the exploration and adventure as for profit. We all complain about rich people, but many of them tend to be philanthropists and use their money for some kind of public good.
    • Yup.

      In the wake of the dot-com days, we have a odd situation where we have a large number of very rich individuals who are also quite clueful and interested in technology. Many of them read lots of sci-fi books when they were kids, and are hoping to make a mark on the future by funding space endeavours.
  • The linked article mentioned the "rebel billionaire" buying a new fleet of SpaceShipTwos for commercial trips to the upper stratosphere and back, which in my opinion is a prety foolish way for him to waste his accquired wealth. Unlike the Concords, which were also expensive and could actually transport you to useful places in small amounts of time, no celebrity or politicial figure would ever want to spend a couple thousand dollars just go up high in a potentially unsafe civilian spacecrat for the sole pu
    • no celebrity or politicial figure would ever want to spend a couple thousand dollars just go up high in a potentially unsafe civilian spacecrat for the sole purpose of floating around in their seat and coming back down

      Dennis Tito. Mark Shuttleworth. Lance Bass (well, sort of.)

      Evidence does not bear out your assertion.
    • Unlike the Concords, which were also expensive and could actually transport you to useful places in small amounts of time, no celebrity or politicial figure would ever want to spend a couple thousand dollars just go up high in a potentially unsafe civilian spacecrat for the sole purpose of floating around in their seat and coming back down.

      Every year, a great many people shell out upwards of $60,000 [alpineascents.com] to be given an attempt to climb Mount Everest. Many of these don't make it all the way, and a large number
  • "Paypal Founder's Merlin Rocket Engine Fires Up" ... shouldn't it be firing down? *rimshot!

    Like eventually...

    *ahem*

    (NB, 'rimshot'!='rimjob')
  • So... (Score:2, Funny)

    by Jozone (835038)
    So thats where my 1.9% + $0.30 go...
  • Of his motivation Elon Musk says:

    "I think it's very important that we become a spacefaring civilization, and that we eventually become multiplanetary."

    Although I didn't want to encumber the story's synopsis with it, I really think Musk needs to discuss his vision of space migration with Gregg Maryniak [google.com] who was the head of Space Studies Institute [ssi.org] for sometime after Gerard O'Neill's death.

    It was Gerard O'Neill who put forth the vision of space settlement [aol.com] after challenging his Princeton physics class wit

  • 160 Seconds? (Score:2, Informative)

    To get into orbit, you need at least 9000 m/s of deltaV, or about 15 g-minutes.

    To do that in 160 seconds (2.67 minutes), you need an *average* acceleration of over 5.5g. You're also not going to get that at launch without a ridiculously overpowered engine that will crush your passengers at the end, when the ship has burned out all of its fuel and weighs a lot less. Most rocket engines aren't all that throttleable, with min thrust usually >.5 x max thrust.

    For comparison, a Space Shuttle launch goes
    • Re:160 Seconds? (Score:3, Informative)

      First off, these engines are only part of a two-stage process, making your whole point wrong. Using them for two stages gives a total burn time of 320 seconds, yielding an average acceleration to LEO of more on the order of 3g, which is quite reasonable.

      Second, even on a single stage rocket, an average acceleration of 5g is almost acceptable; witness certain NASA studies [nasa.gov] (about halfway down the page) which concluded that 5g for two minutes is sustainable for most all humans.
      • Original poster here...

        I didn't realize it was a two-stage rocket. I should have R'd TFA more carefully.

        While your passengers might be able to handle 5g+ for a couple of minutes, there would still be engineering problems. A single stage to orbit (SSTO) rocket runing LOX/Kerosene needs to be at least 12:1 fuel:(everything else). That means that at burnout, the acceleration will be as much as 13x what it was at launch, because the same engine is now pushing 1/13 as much weight. Most rocket engines are n
    • 5.5g for the Falcon I is fine as it only launches satellites. Have you seen the diagrams for the Falcon V though? It is a much larger rocket and has a much larger first stage that I can only assume holds more propellant.
    • When they say 160 seconds I wonder if they are talking about Specific Impulse? [af.mil] The definition of specific impulse has never been clear to me, but it has something to do with the amount of thrust you get per amount of fuel burned, and is expressed in seconds. For example, the space shuttle main engines have a specific impulse of about 450 seconds.
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SpaceX [wikipedia.org]
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falcon_I [wikipedia.org] (their $6 million, 670 kg payload rocket, being launched in March)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falcon_V [wikipedia.org] (their $12 million, 6020 kg payload rocket, scheduled for a November launch)
  • I sent for a starter package on the America's Space Prize 2 months ago, and I never recieved a reply of any sort. I don't think it actually exists.
    • I sent for a starter package on the America's Space Prize 2 months ago, and I never recieved a reply of any sort. I don't think it actually exists.

      If you're serious, contact them again.

      For their own reasons, they did early announcements before the whole rules and signup packages were ready.

      However, as someone who contacted them before they even officially announced it, I can assure you that they are responding to potential competitors that they believe are credible, and they are in the process now

  • by FleaPlus (6935) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @09:13PM (#11404135) Journal
    First, read this article. [aviationnow.com]

    Right now, launch costs are the biggest barrier to having lots of cool things (orbital hotels, factories, lunar bases, etc.) zipping around in space. According to this interview [hobbyspace.com], Musk was previously planning on self-funding a mission to put an experimental greenhouse on Mars, but decided to start SpaceX when he realized that the overall mission cost would be dominated by the launch price.

    SpaceX's Falcon I [wikipedia.org] is designed to compete with the Pegasus rocket [astronautix.com], which currently dominates the "low-cost" launch market. The Pegasus costs around $20 million to launch 375kg into space. The Falcon I will cost $6 million to launch 670kg into space. Stated differently, the Pegasus costs around $53,000 per kg, while the Falcon I will cost around $9000 per kg.

    Things change even more with SpaceX's larger Falcon V [wikipedia.org] rocket, scheduled for a launch this November. This will compete directly with the Delta IV Medium [astronautix.com], which costs $90 million to lift 8600kg to LEO. The Falcon V will cost $12 million to lift 6020kg to LEO. That's around $10000 per kg for the Delta IV Medium and around $2000 per kg for the Falcon V.

    One of SpaceX's goals is to reuse as much in terms of engines, components, and software as they build larger and larger rocket. As they benefit from economies of scale and build larger rockets, the costs will only drop.
    • If anyone's curious, here's a little more info on his old "Life to Mars" project:

      MarsNow 1.9 Profile: Elon Musk, Life to Mars Foundation [spaceref.com]

      Someone is putting his money where my mouth has been. Describing permanent settlement of Mars as "a positive, constructive, inspirational goal" capable of uniting humanity at a critical time," dot-com entrepreneur Elon Musk has pledged a substantial portion of his personal fortune to realizing that goal, beginning with a proposed $20 million technology-demonstration M
    • Ya know the best way to get all these interesting things into space is to not lift them. Use lunar materials (bwahahaha, as if a Falcon V could get to the moon) or use asteroids (mehehehe, yep, cause going into a solar orbit and sending a few 100,000 tons back earth's way is really doable) or, (really this time I promise) use the vast amount of abandoned space junk that is already sitting up there in earth orbit. We know what it is made from. We know where it is. Why not cut it up and do something usefu
  • by FleaPlus (6935) on Tuesday January 18, 2005 @09:21PM (#11404193) Journal
    I've mentioned it elsewhere in this discussion, but a couple years ago HobbySpace's RLV News [hobbyspace.com] had a very good interview [hobbyspace.com] with Elon Musk.

    Here's a quote:

    HS: Private rocket development by startup companies in the post-Apollo era includes projects such as Truax's Volksrocket in the late 70s, Conestoga I and AMROC in the 80s, Beal Aerospace and several other ELV and RLV companies in the 1990s. They all came up short of space and many see their history as nothing but a tale of woe and failure. To me, though, they each appear to build on what was learned before them and to provide significant advancements in the technical and strategic knowledge needed to develop a rocket business from scratch.

    It looks like SpaceX will be the startup company that finally makes it to orbit. When you studied prior efforts, what were some of the lessons [you] learned on what to do and, perhaps most importantly, what not to do?

    Musk: Well, I have tried to learn as much as possible from prior attempts. If nothing else, we are committed to failing in a new way :)

    The ones I'm familiar with failed on one or more of the following:

    1. Lacked a critical mass of technical skill.
    2. Insufficient capital to reach the finish line, particularly if an unexpected setback occurred.
    3. Success was reliant on a series of technology breakthroughs that did not happen.

    The above modes can obviously cross-feed one another.

    HS: John Carmack has said something to the effect that the gap between what could be done versus what is being done is bigger in aerospace than in any other industry. Gary Hudson said that he was "amazed by how much easier the job of getting to orbit is today than even a few years go"..."Software, avionics and manufacturing technology have all improved measurably" and drastically reduced the number of people needed to design a launcher.

    Now that you've gone through the rocket vehicle design phase and are well into construction, does your experience support their views or has the Falcon development perhaps been more difficult than you initially expected?

    Musk: Well, hard and easy are somewhat nebulous terms. I think I have high standards and would classify getting Falcon to orbit as quite difficult. Overall though, I think we have had quite a smooth development so far, which is a credit to the hard work of the SpaceX engineering team.

    The design tools, such as solid modeling and finite element analysis software are substantially more powerful than ten years ago, so that's a clear advantage. Obviously, most electronics have improved a lot too, except gyroscopes and flight termination systems.
  • I scanned through the Spacex website and didn't see any mention of a crew vehicle or their plans of putting 5 people into orbit by 2010. While I'm sure they are somewhat serious about this plan, and there is probably a news update or two that I missed, it definitely appears that Spacex is (sensibly) focusing much more heavily on making their rockets a commercially viable lift vehicle.

    I have seen no discussion at all of a crew vehicle, so it seems logical to assume that they have not addressed that detail

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