Saturday, May 25, 2024


Falcons, dragons and a grasshopper: how SpaceX mastered space

Время на чтение 6 мин.

SpaceX’s huge Starship rocket is fueled for the first time. This is an important step for the launch vehicle and the spacecraft. Further — only fire tests and the first flight. There are high hopes for Starship: at least Elon Musk claims the development as a means of delivering people to Mars and other planets of the solar system. The monstrous structure really inspires faith in the cosmic future of mankind. However, Starship was not immediately built: SpaceX engineers trained for a long time on smaller devices. We will talk about the path that the company has taken in this article.

Launch vehicles

Time flies so fast, and today it’s hard to believe that SpaceX celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. In 2002, Elon Musk was not yet so eccentric, did not try to make Twitter free again and did not smoke different things on the air. He literally invested the money he made on the PayPal payment system in his dream. Having founded the space company, the billionaire immediately declared the purpose of its existence to fly to Mars and create a human base there.

The company was founded to promote human space exploration. This is the main reason for our existence, Garrett Roizman, chief engineer and later consultant for SpaceX said. His words are quoted in the book “Elon Musk. In pursuit of a dream”.

In 2006, SpaceX engineers unveiled their first development, the Falcon 1, a two-stage light-weight rocket named after the Millennium Falcon, Han Solo’s ship from the Star Wars universe. The carrier was equipped with Merlin engines (also developed by SpaceX), they run on a mixture of kerosene and liquid oxygen. The rocket could launch 420 kilograms of payload into low earth orbit.

The first three Falcon 1 launches ended in failure. The company conducted two more successful launches, after which it removed the Falcon 1 from production. Firstly, the offer was not in demand, and secondly, SpaceX switched to an improved Falcon 9 model. However, in history, Falcon 1 remained the first private rocket with liquid engines to launch a payload into low Earth orbit.

The heavy Falcon 9 was already made according to the needs of the market, although the team planned an intermediate version of the Falcon 5, they decided to abandon it. The number in the title means the number of main engines — modified Merlin 1D +. Like its predecessor, the rocket is fueled with kerosene and liquid oxygen, but it is an order of magnitude more powerful. The latest version of the FT (Full Thrust) can launch 22,800 kilograms into low Earth orbit without the return of the first stage and 16,250 with a return. Also, the carrier can be used to launch 8,300 kilograms (5,500 kilograms with a return stage) into a geotransfer orbit and 4,020 kilograms to fly to Mars.

Falcon 9 was first launched in 2010 – and immediately successful. In general, out of 198 launches, only one was unsuccessful and another one was partially unsuccessful. The first stage of the carrier can return to Earth and be reused — this reduces the cost of launch. The latest version of the rocket currently in use is called Block 5. Its first stage is designed for ten or more launches without inter-flight maintenance.

The reentry stage technology was being tested on a prototype Grasshopper rocket. The carrier made eight test flights in 2012-2013, but work on it was curtailed because the engineering team decided to focus on the Falcon 9.

Falcon Heavy is a super-heavy launch vehicle based on the Falcon 9. In fact, it is assembled from three modified first stages of the Falcon 9: one serves as the central block, the other two as side boosters. Falcon Heavy set a record for the number of sustainer engines — as many as 28! At the time of the first launch in 2018, the carrier was the most powerful in the history of mankind, until SLS broke its record in 2022.

Falcon Heavy can “throw” 63,800 kilograms of cargo into low Earth orbit, and 26,700 kilograms into geotransitional orbit. It can (and should!) be used for flights to other planets: a rocket will send 16,800 kilograms to Mars, and 3,500 kilograms to Pluto. However, the cost one launch bites and amounts to $ 97 million (however, due to reusability, this is still much less than the SLS competitor).


In parallel with the carriers, SpaceX also developed spacecraft to compete for NASA contracts for the delivery of cargo to the ISS. In the early 2000s, the agency actively sought replacements for shuttles that were scheduled to be decommissioned. In 2004, SpaceX began developing a space heavy load, and already in 2006 won the NASA competition, receiving nearly $400 million to complete work on the Falcon 9 and the first version of the Dragon spacecraft.

In 2012, Dragon successfully completed a demonstration mission to the ISS. It became the first private ship to dock at the station. Thanks to this, SpaceX received a contract for two billion dollars to supply the ISS with cargo. Dragon remains one a ship that can also return cargo from the ISS.

In 2014, Dragon 2 appeared — an improved version of the ship, which can serve both as a cargo ship and as a manned one. It can deliver to the ISS up to six tons (and from the ISS to Earth — up to 3.3 tons) of cargo or seven people. The Falcon 9 launch vehicle launches Dragon into orbit.

The pinnacle of SpaceX’s technical creativity to date is the Starship, an interplanetary spacecraft that hasn’t flown anywhere yet. The name Starship is understood as a spacecraft itself, as well as a system of a ship and a Falcon Heavy launch vehicle. In the future, Starship should replace all other SpaceX developments.

NASA has already selected SpaceX as one of the contractors for the Artemis program. In particular, Starship ships will carry astronauts from Earth to the lunar orbital station. In addition, the agency has awarded SpaceX a nearly three billion dollar contract to develop a lander that will take astronauts to and from the lunar surface.

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