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June 06, 2012

SpaceX Designates Next Four Spaceflight Milestones

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

Having completed a successful International Space Station (ISS) supply demonstration mission, SpaceX (News - Alert) is not resting on its laurels. It has announced four spaceflight milestones on a roadmap that ultimately leads to regularly scheduled manned flights to Mars, each one contributing to a larger and more flexible infrastructure.

Going to Mars will require bigger launch vehicles. One of two near-term milestones for SpaceX is the Falcon Heavy rocket, billed by the company as the world's most powerful rocket. Built around the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy will have the ability to put over 53 metric tons into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) – nearly twice the payload of the retired Space Shuttle and more than twice the payload of the Delta IV Heavy.

Falcon Heavy uses three nine-engine cores as its first stage and is being built to meet NASA human rating standards, with triple redundant avionics and structural safety margins of 40 percent above flight loads; other rockets design to 25 percent above flight loads. 

SpaceX offers Falcon Heavy at prices between $83 to $128 million, with an eye to securing contracts for launching large Department of Defense satellites and NASA projects. First flight from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California is expected in 2013, with a flight from Cape Canaveral in Florida in late 2013 or 2014.

Dragon version 2 is the other part of SpaceX's near-term development, the crew carrying a version of the company's flight-proven spacecraft. The company will integrate its Super Draco thrusters into the Dragon space capsule as a crew escape system during launch, and a softer precision landing system on Earth or "any other body" in the solar system, according to executives.   

For Earth, the thrusters enable "helicopter precision" landings on dry land, rather than a splashdown into salty corrosive ocean water and a lengthy trip on a barge back to shore. On other celestial bodies, such as the Moon, Mars or an asteroid, Dragon version 2 should be equally capable of providing a soft landing. (There's an interesting question here – if Dragon could land on the moon, get refueled and take off again – but that's a discussion for another day).

Reusability is one of two longer term projects SpaceX has discussed. The company plans to conduct a series of flight tests in Texas using a single engine from the Falcon rocket incorporated into its "Grasshopper" vertical takeoff/vertical landing experimental vehicle. Grasshopper will be used as a pathfinder in order to fly-back the nine-engine Falcon 9 first stage for reuse, rather than simply letting it fall into the ocean.

The other long-term project SpaceX is working on a high-performance cryogenic rocket engine. It would incorporate the new engine into the Falcon 9 and an even larger launch vehicle. At various conferences, the company has discussed notational super-heavy launch vehicles capable of lifting anywhere from 125 to 140 metric tons to LEO. More information on cryogenic rocket engine work is expected to be revealed this fall.

Finally, the four goals above are only the things SpaceX has publicly discussed in detail. There are likely other projects lurking in the wings, including a more efficient and faster ways to get to Mars other than chemical propulsion.

Edited by Braden Becker

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