Hitting speeds of nearly 40,000 kilometers per hour (about 24,000 miles per hour), the Falcon 9 may not be able to make the Kessel Run in “12 parsecs” like its Han-Solo-piloted namesake, but it is one of mankind’s premier aerospace technologies. First launched in 2010, these rockets, manufactured by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, are capable of lifting payloads into orbit and resupplying space stations. In fact, on January 24, 2021, Falcon 9 set the record for most satellites launched into orbit by a rocket family with 143 successful launches.
For many, the success of the Falcon 9 and its private mass production process that turns out a rocket a month represents the first step towards mass civilian space flight, private aerospace industry, and space colonization.
Famous industrialist and entrepreneur Elon Musk started SpaceX in 2001 with the dream of colonizing Mars. Initially, Musk went to Russia looking to buy cheap rockets—that’s how enthusiastic he was—but had no luck. He decided to just manufacture the rockets himself.
In 2002, Musk and rocket engineer Tom Mueller formally created SpaceX in a warehouse in El Segundo, California. By 2005 they had 160 employees and were completing Falcon 1, their first rocket.
Falcon 1 was funded entirely by private capital with Musk almost bankrupting his companies Tesla and SolarCity—and himself—in the process. However, in 2006, NASA approached SpaceX to partner on a heavier rocket, Falcon 9.
SpaceX funded the development of the Falcon 9 rocket with seed money from NASA. This money came from the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, or COTS, which began in 2006 to carry personnel and cargo to the International Space Station. The initial contract awarded SpaceX $278 million, though this was raised to $396 million after certain production milestones were reached. SpaceX itself invested $450 million in the development.
NASA and SpaceX entered into a different kind of financial arrangement than those typically used in the aerospace industry. Normally, when NASA doesn’t develop or manufacture something themselves, they contract it out using an approach called the “cost-plus contract” where they reimburse a private company for the costs they incurred plus a little bit for profit.
As you can imagine, this approach doesn’t exactly incentivize cost reduction and efficiency, and indeed, NASA estimated that had they used this type of contract, development of Falcon 9 could have cost upwards of $3.6 billion.
Instead, NASA merely set broad requirements for what capabilities they wanted from the rockets and left everything else to SpaceX. This cut costs for both parties and streamlined development and production.
THE FIRST REUSABLE ROCKET
The Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket powered by SpaceX Merlin rocket engines. This means after the initial acceleration to reach orbit, the bottom part of the rocket detaches and returns to Earth, reducing weight. The first stage specifically uses nine of the Merlin engines, hence the name “Falcon 9.”
The rocket’s real claim to fame is its reusability. The first stage of the rocket is capable of returning to Earth and landing vertically without being damaged. Granted, it doesn’t do so every time, but to date, Falcon 9 first-stage rockets have successfully landed vertically 92 out of 103 times. That’s an 89%, so we can round it up to an A.
This vertical landing feature, known as VTVL, or “vertical takeoff, vertical landing,” started in 2015 with the Falcon 9 Full Thrust, also known as v1.2, the third version of the Falcon 9. It was the first rocket in history to successfully complete a VTVL
Since then, SpaceX has completed VTVLs with the Falcon 9 using a variety of landing surfaces. Most have landed on an autonomous spaceport drone ship, or ASDS, which gets its name because it basically goes out onto the ocean to catch the landing Falcon 9 rockets all on its own without any human control, though it can be directed tele-robotically in case of emergencies. SpaceX currently has three operational ASDSs, all with unique names: Of Course I Still Love You, A Shortfall of Gravitas and Just Read the Instructions.
Besides the ASDSs, SpaceX has also landed Falcon 9 rockets on ground-based launch pads.
The reusability of the Falcon 9 significantly reduces costs because the first-stage boosters represent the most intensive part of manufacturing. To date, 28 boosters have been launched more than once with 10 being the most launches for a single booster.
This is because SpaceX designed the most recent iteration of the Falcon 9, the Full Thrust Block 5, to handle exactly 10 launches and landings with minimal maintenance. Then, with full-scale refurbishment, it can theoretically handle 100 VTVLs.
The Falcon 9 Full Thrust Block 5 has been flying since 2018. Including the payload, it’s about 70 meters or 230 feet tall, which is about the wingspan of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. Despite being so tall, it’s only 12 feet wide. That’s just 3 and two-thirds meters.
The rocket itself weighs 549 tons, which is nearly 50,000 kilograms. This is actually relatively lightweight considering the Saturn V rocket that was used in the Apollo program that first took American astronauts to the Moon weighed a whopping 3,100 tons, nearly 3 million kilograms.
Using a fuel combination of liquid oxygen and highly refined kerosene called “Rocket Propellant 1,” the Block 5 version of Falcon 9 increases thrust compared to previous versions, reaching 850,000 Newtons per Merlin engine. With 9 engines, that gives the Block 5 7.6 million Newtons of thrust, or 1.7 million pounds. For reference, a jet engine usually produces around 500,000 Newtons of thrust, just over 100,000 pounds.
This incredible thrust allows the Falcon 9 Block 5 to carry 50,000 pounds (over 20,000 kilograms) into low Earth orbit, where the International Space Station is, or 18,000 pounds (over 8,000 kilograms) into geosynchronous orbit. It can even send 8,800 pounds (about 4,000 kilograms) to Mars.
Falcon 9s are also combined to make the Falcon Heavy rocket, which is basically three Falcon 9s strapped together. This rocket can produce 22.8 million Newtons of thrust and send 37,000 pounds (about 17,000 kilograms) to Mars or 7,700 pounds (about 3,500 kilograms) to Pluto.
Falcon Heavy’s boosters can also be reused as well. The three Falcon 9 boosters separate during flight and all return to the Earth to land individually.
The Falcon 9 has gone through 7 iterations: v1.0, v1.1 and v1.2, which is called Full Thrust and has had five variants referred to as Blocks 1 through 5. Altogether, these have flown 129 launches, almost all of which have been successful.
Only one Falcon 9 launch has been an absolute failure due to an in-flight explosion that totally destroyed the rocket and payload. Another was a partial failure as the primary payload was actually delivered to the International Space Station, but a secondary payload was stranded in the wrong orbit.
SpaceX has launched Falcon Heavy three times. Its maiden voyage was particularly noteworthy because Elon Musk decided to make the test payload his own personal Tesla Roadster with a dummy astronaut named “Starman” seated in the driver’s seat. With one hand on the steering wheel and an elbow out the window, Starman flew to space in style listening to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and “Life on Mars?” on repeat.
As if that didn’t make Elon Musk’s long-term plans for space flight and colonization obvious enough, SpaceX also included the Arch Mission 1.2 disk. The Arch Mission aims to deposit libraries with records of human civilization throughout the solar system on data crystals that can last 14 billion years. In this case, the disk contained Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, now destined to orbit the sun until it dies.
SpaceX also included a copy of Douglas Adams’s novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the Roadster’s glove compartment and made sure Starman will always know where his towel is by putting one on the dashboard along with a sign reading “Don’t Panic.”
Lastly, there was a plaque with the names of everyone who worked on the project mounted underneath the car and a message on the Roadster’s circuit board reading “Made on Earth by Humans.”
The vast majority of launches have taken place in Florida, either at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station or John F. Kennedy Space Center. A few have launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
Most missions have been for government or commercial purposes such as taking cargo to the International Space Station, but in 2020 and 2021 about half the missions were dedicated to carrying SpaceX’s Starlink satellites into orbit.
In May of 2020, Falcon 9 made history by actually carrying human beings—astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley—into space in the Crew Dragon spacecraft. This was the first manned spaceflight by a private company and the first manned spaceflight in an American rocket since the last space shuttle mission in 2011.
Falcon 9 already has some 60 planned launches for 2022 for commercial and government purposes. The payloads include manned missions in the Crew Dragon spacecraft, a lunar orbiter, and a lunar lander for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. Made by Intuitive Machines, this would be the first spacecraft landed on the moon by a private American company. There are also several more Starlink missions planned for the end of 2021.
SpaceX has even more ambitious plans for Falcon Heavy. In August 2022, the rocket will carry the Psyche probe into space where it will study the asteroid of the same name in hopes of discovering new information about the formation of the solar system.
Things will get really interesting in 2024 when Falcon Heavy is supposed to carry the Europa Clipper into heliocentric orbit. This space probe will fly by Jupiter’s moon Europa and conduct a detailed survey looking for evidence of geological processes, determine the features of the moon’s subsurface ocean, and investigate whether the moon could have life.
Also in 2024, Falcon Heavy will launch with the first parts of Gateway, a planned space station that will orbit the Moon and provide a laboratory and habitat for future astronauts. This is part of NASA’s larger Artemis mission which hopes to send Americans to the Moon by 2024. It’s also been proposed as the starting point for future missions to Mars.
That’s great news for Elon Musk and SpaceX who have made it no secret that their ultimate goal is to colonize the Red Planet. For the time being, they’re well on their way thanks to the ingenuity and success of the Falcon 9 rockets.