SpaceX edges closer to Falcon 9 launch with second stage test firing

SpaceX test fired the second stage of its Falcon 9 rocket, meaning the first demo flight from Cape Canaveral could be as soon as February. Falcon 9 will re-supply the Space Station at a much lower cost than the soon-to-be retired Space Shuttle.
Written by John Dodge, Contributor

Commercial takeover of some Space Shuttle duties moved a step closer to reality Saturday when SpaceX test fired the second stage engine of its two-stage Falcon 9 launch vehicle, aka booster rocket.

Stage two was fired at SpaceX's test firing facility in McGregor, Texas for five minutes and 29 seconds (see video below), their full duration in orbit or 15 seconds short of the 345 seconds listed on the spec sheet. SpaceX CEO, CTO and founder Elon Musk summed up the milestone in his most recent e-mail newsletter.

"This was the final stage firing required for launch, so the second stage will soon be packaged for shipment and should arrive at Cape Canaveral by end of month. Depending on how well full vehicle integration goes, launch should occur one to three months later."

The second stage houses one Merlin engine and is fired in orbit. The first stage has nine of the same Merlin engines which you see firing when the rocket leaves the launch pad. The first stage was test fired twice in October. The bulbous nose carries the payload or in the case of case of International Space Station re-supply, the Dragon re-usable space module.

Falcon 9 second stage firing. credit: SpaceX

In concert with Dragon,  Falcon 9 will deliver a promised payload of 20,000 kilograms to the Space Station starting in 2011. That's about the same as the Space Shuttle. NASA has contracted for 12 such missions worth $1.6 billion with options for more.

If you wanted a Falcon 9 to hurl something of yours into space, mission cost ranges between $44-$49.5 million although that pricing was only good through Dec. 31, 2009 (I assume you sign up for those prices into the future given the Falcon 9 has not launched yet. It's maiden demo flight was supposed to be last year, but was delayed).

When they go, Falcon 9 missions will be a bargain. NASA spends $450 million per Space Shuttle mission and that does not include the $1.7 billion pricetag it costs to build the Shuttle. While the Space Shuttle perhaps does more than Dragon will, the cost savings are dramatic.

NASA has spent an estimated $145 billion in on Space Shuttle missions or about what it cost  to fight the war in Iraq for two years.

Falcon 9. credit: SpaceX

NASA isn't SpaceX only Falcon 9 customer. Argentina's space agency has contracted with SpaceX for the Falcon 9 to launch satellites.

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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