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SpaceX headed to the ISS tomorrow (nasa.gov)
386 points by mkr-hn on May 18, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 79 comments

I can't wait! SpaceX is the most amazing company right now. They're work is the exact opposite of the trivial-to-start social networking apps, the tedium of online advertising.

They want to send people to Mars. And they're launching to the ISS tomorrow, the most expensive object ever built by humanity. They have the world's trust. They have the world's best engineers. And they have some intense ambition and lots of money. So awesome.

I had a phone interview for a software position there just a few days ago (didn't get it) and it was the most thrilling experience I'd had, like, ever. I have to work hard and study more so I can try again in a couple months.

Best of luck SpaceX.

Please continue trying, your head is definitely in the right place and I'm sure you'll be a great asset when you get to where they need you to be.

I am such a huge Elon Musk fan that there really are no words to convey. When you think of the phrase "anything is possible if you put your mind to it" this guy is the true personification of it. It is also a personal dream of mine to be able to work with him some day.

When I was young I was thinking how much of a shame it was I missed out on the 60s. But then I got to live through seeing Steve Job do what he did (I was born less than 2 months before Apple was incorporated)... and now I'm seeing this guy just tear it up in multiple industries cracking some really difficult and important problems. I'm totally dazed; what a great role model.

"They want to send people to Mars"

I was actually thinking the other day about the people alive today who might be household names in 500 years - if Elon Musk achieves his goals for reaching Mars then his is probably the only name on that list.

I don't think he'll need to get to Mars to be on that list.

Lastingly transforming the economics, reusability, and safety of rocket and vehicle technology in his short lifetime will be enough.

Musk and Spacex are already on track to benefit humanity 500 years from now and beyond.

And that's just one of his companies. Let's not forget PayPal and Tesla, which, while not as important to the future of humanity, both represent successful leaps forward in technology and economics.

The Christopher Columbus for the next millennium.

I would love to work there but they only recruit U.S. citizens and although I was contacted by them last year, it ended up going nowhere when I mentioned this "small" detail.

Can you elaborate on your phone interview?

This potentially has to do with regulations in the US over access to rocket technology. I knew a Canadian who worked at Lockheed ~10 years ago who had to be shuffled off a certain project due to objections from the US State Department.

All rocket technology is considered military technology by the US government (and probably every other government). There really isn't that much difference between a rocket that can put you into LEO and a rocket that can deliver a nuke to your enemies. And, as the North Koreans have proven, it's not the easiest thing in the world to get right.

It's not a small detail, it's because of ITAR -- and it's not taken lightly. Space companies can't even speak to people who aren't US citizens.

I was almost clicking the "Apply" button when I read that line in the bottom of the job description...

Glassdoor has some info on SpaceX interviews: http://www.glassdoor.com/Interview/Space-Exploration-Technol...

And best of luck getting your job there. If I were younger I'd do the same thing. The mission tomorrow is I think the beginning of the privatization of space exploration.

If you don't mind, please write up about your interview experience.

I'd love to work there. Just had a friend interview in fact (didn't quite make it but enjoyed the experience). The only concern is salary and working conditions. I mean I get the impact of the work and it is true that is by far the most important consideration for any engineer. But I have worked for smaller companies before where salary was well below average and there were 70-80-90 hour weeks. It was incredibly demoralizing. It would be nice to hear that isn't how SpaceX is.

This is a question I have about SpaceX. How much of their low development and launch costs depend on having large numbers of people willing to sacrifice compensation to work for such a transformative company?

I don't know anything solid about this, but I would very much like to know.

They claim the savings come from the fact that they're basically using the same engine for everything, i.e. a Falcon 9 has a cluster of the same engine used in the Falcon 1, and the Falcon Heavy will have three clusters of the same engine.

Though I'm sure they don't pay more than it takes to get the talent they want. Why would they?

I would love a sysadmin position there. A lot. I do't have the Windows background that they prefer, though. Maybe later.

Please tell me their spaceship doesn't run on windows.

Nah, the ships themselves run linux. They use Windows for the ERP stuff, like parts tracking, analytics, reporting, etc.

Their own public documentation says VxWorks is used in the spacecraft. I have not seen Linux cited, but would not be surprised.

Elon Musk said they use C++ on Linux a few days ago on Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/elonmusk/status/198579161382649857

Right on, dude.

I'll add my voice to the chorus of folks gushing about how awesome this is, but here's a list of reason on just WHY this is so awesome.

Straight off the top, this is only the third launch of the Falcon 9. This rocket alone represents a dramatic disruption of the entire orbital launch industry, offering to make launch of both humans and cargo cheaper than it's ever been by an incredibly wide margin. If this rocket proves to be a reliable workhorse and proves that the existing cost structure is workable then it will both dramatically lower the cost of access to space and drive billions of dollars of revenue to SpaceX.

Second, this represents a significant advance in being able to deliver supplies to ISS, largely replacing a vehicle that is vastly more expensive than the Dragon Cargo. And finally putting American spaceflight back in the game of ISS resupply post-Shuttle.

Third, the Dragon Cargo shares an enormous amount of heritage with the manned Dragon capsule in development. As they prove out elements of the vehicle design in unmanned ISS resupply missions they are effectively proving out the manned version as well. The manned Dragon capsule will represent a huge leap for the US space program, catapulting us back into having the capability to send crew into orbit and to the ISS.

Fourth, given the costs of Falcon/Dragon flights they should be enormously disruptive to manned spaceflight, representing a vastly cheaper way to put humans in orbit even than the Russian Soyuz. That will likely translate into far more people beingable to go into orbit and the development of a sustained orbital tourism industry on an impressive scale which will fuel further innovation and drive down cost of access to space even more.

Finally, all of this is being done by a private company working toward its own ends rather than a company on a strict government contract. This represents a new paradigm for launch vehicles and for manned spaceflight, potentially transforming the nature of the entire endeavor into something that is self-sustaining regardless of government enthusiasm for spaceflight.

In short, this represents nothing less than fundamentally rebooting the entire space program going all the way back to Sputnik, and it could quite readily represent the opening up of spaceflight for commercial applications, space science and exploration, and for manned exploration and colonization to a degree that will make the scifi dreamers of our past look like forecasters.

Can you give some numbers for some of the "vast" cost difference we're talking about (even if they're ballpark figures)?

First, let's take the Shuttle off the table, which is no longer in service and was by far the most expensive launch vehicle in extensive service in history.

Right now, the price of a Falcon 9 launch is around $50mil, this translates to $4.8/g to LEO or $16.7/g to GTO (which is where most satellites go). This compares very favorably to the price of other western launchers (Atlas V: $18/g, Ariane 5: $21/g, Delta IV: $19.5/g to GTO and around $11-$14/g to LEO) and is very competitive compared to Russian launchers (Soyuz 2: $16.7/g, Proton M: $18.2/g to GTO or $6.4/g and $4.8/g to LEO respectively).

However, keep in mind that these are prices, which include a healthy profit margin for SpaceX, and it's no coincidence that they have priced themselves right at the level of the otherwise cheapest launch vehicles in the world (since that maximizes their profit margin). Also keep in mind that as SpaceX's operations and manufacturing become more streamlined, as they amortize the fixed development costs for the Falcon 9 (which won't take long since the costs are a small multiple of the per flight revenue), as flight rate increases, and as competitive pressure to lower their profit margin increases they will be able to offer launches for considerably less than they are today, at lower prices than the Soyuz or Proton, for example.

However, this is just the beginning, as SpaceX has several development efforts in progress. The Falcon Heavy, for example, represents an incremental evolution of the Falcon 9 design, using 3 1st stage cores (instead of just one) and using a new cross-feed system to improve performance. The thing about the Falcon Heavy is that it uses slightly less than 3x as much hardware at about 2x the cost of a Falcon 9 launch but it will be able to deliver 5x the payload. This will translate into prices around $6.6/g to GTO and $2.4/g to LEO, at the high end ($4.2/g and $1.5/g at the low end). Nobody else in the world can come close to those numbers.

Also, they are working on a fully reusable version of the Falcon 9 which will reduce costs by at least a factor of 5 conservatively and perhaps as much as a factor of 100.

The maiden flight for the Falcon Heavy is slated to be next year. And they have already begun development on the core systems for the reusable Falcon (here's the 1st stage landing gear they've built for one of the test vehicles: http://s3.amazonaws.com/imgly_production/4311966/large.jpg).

Are we sure about this healthy profit? Is it possible they're just using this to try and beta their vehicle at lower cost?

Rather certain. Several folks have looked into SpaceX's cost structure and come to that conclusion, including NASA. They haven't paid off the development cost yet but they do run an incremental profit on each launch.

There's no freemium model when you're building rocket ships.

Think dumping, not freemium.

Dumping requires lots of money. Dumping on the backyard of large defense contractors is suicidal.

I think the maiden flight of the Falcon Heavy is slated for this year: http://www.spacearchive.info/vafbsked.htm

With the way launches tend to slip, I wouldn't be surprised if you're right about it happening next year, but as of right now, it's on Vandenberg's launch schedule for 2012.

Latest from SpaceX management, in a press event last week: they're building it this year, but expect to launch sometime in 2013.


> as competitive pressure to lower their profit margin increases

Assuming current incumbents are capable of doing that. That's a big if. If their competition can't effectively compete, their profit margins will remain steady allowing them to develop more interesting vehicles/capabilities.

True enough. Even so, it's in their best interests long term to price themselves a decent amount below the cheapest competition (but not too much below) to make sure they're maintaining a high enough marketshare to maximize their total profit, not just per unit profits.

Also, to some degree as the space tourism market gains traction there will be some amount of competitive pressure on the costs of orbital tourism from the sub-orbital market (Virgin Galactic and others). More so, once SpaceX has proven their business model it will drive a lot of investment capital to their competitors (both old and new) to try to level the playing field.

It it difficult to 'cost out' the current Soyuz infrastructure because so much of it can be accounted to zero with basic accounting. (The cost of design and development was paid off over 15 years of launches according to an old press release but that was also at a time when the then Soviets had even less of an independent press than they do today)

For me however, this in itself is a pretty amazing thing, because SpaceX is a 'company' rather than a 'nation-state' the cost accounting is actually grounded in an independent currency and without hidden funding sources (like much of both the US and Soviet space programs benefited hugely from the investment in inter-continental ballistic missile technology which was 'defense' spending rather than 'space' spending. Such games are not possible at SpaceX.

So it would be accurate to say that the Falcon9 launch system is the first system for which we know the true cost of the system. And that is pretty amazing to my way of thinking.

When you combine that with a fixed price to get various tonnage in LEO or a into a Geo/Lunar transfer orbit, you can make statements like "Getting this into orbit costs $X" with overruns/delays/randomness priced out.

With some newer work being developed for on orbit vehicles, things like Lunar exploitation and Lagrange point stations become an exercise in money rather than politics and money. And that is also a huge shift.

"Can you give some numbers for some of the "vast" cost difference we're talking about (even if they're ballpark figures)?"

"Q. How much does it cost to launch a Space Shuttle? A. The average cost to launch a Space Shuttle is about $450 million per mission." [1]

[1] http://www.nasa.gov/centers/kennedy/about/information/shuttl...

"The average price of a full-up NASA Dragon cargo mission to the International Space Station is $133 million including inflation, or roughly $115m in today's dollars, and we have a firm, fixed price contract with NASA for 12 missions. This price includes the costs of the Falcon 9 launch, the Dragon spacecraft, all operations, maintenance and overhead, and all of the work required to integrate with the Space Station. If there are cost overruns, SpaceX will cover the difference. (This concept may be foreign to some traditional government space contractors that seem to believe that cost overruns should be the responsibility of the taxpayer.)

The total company expenditures since being founded in 2002 through the 2010 fiscal year were less than $800 million, which includes all the development costs for the Falcon 1, Falcon 9 and Dragon. Included in this $800 million are the costs of building launch sites at Vandenberg, Cape Canaveral and Kwajalein, as well as the corporate manufacturing facility that can support up to 12 Falcon 9 and Dragon missions per year. This total also includes the cost of five flights of Falcon 1, two flights of Falcon 9, and one up and back flight of Dragon." [2]

[2] http://www.spacex.com/usa.php

Cost per kilo to Low Earth Orbit (LEO):

  Space Shuttle: $19, 824 per kg [1]

  Soyuz-2: $5,333 per kg [2]

  Falcon 9: $5,167 per kg [3]
At the moment, the Falcon 9 is not that much cheaper than the Soyuz.

Elon Musk's talk of $1,100 per kg lies in the future. SpaceX is hoping that making all the parts reusable and its new Falcon Heavy (Which will carry five times as much as the Falcon 9) will cause launch costs to plummet like a stone.

Which is not to say SpaceX isn't amazing. It has been launching rockets for that past 6 years. Whereas Soyuz has been the 40 year work of a superpower. Achieving parity is a wonder in and of itself.

[1] $450 million cost per launch / 22,700 kg payload


[2] $40 million / 7,500 kg payload


[3] $54 million / 10,450 kg payload


Edit: Grammar, formatting

Not cost per kilo, price. These numbers aren't comparable as-is, you have to look at the cost structure.

This is cost in terms of "how much will it cost me to hire SpaceX or the Soyuz to take my tourist self / science experiment / mining robot to LEO." If you want to call that price, go for it.

Obviously this is pure theorycraft for the Space Shuttle. But if anyone has a better number please share!

$/kg is the crucial number that has to fall to bring about a new era in space exploration.

Except for SpaceX, space launch companies don't publish their prices straight up on the website. But about $5,000 per kg ballpark figure for Soyuz seems widely to be accepted by credible sources on the internet and books. See:


If someone has harder numbers for the Soyuz, please share!

"Obviously this is pure theorycraft for the Space Shuttle. But if anyone has a better number please share!"

A moot point now, since the Shuttle isn't operational. However, when it was running the incremental cost to NASA was around $500 mil per launch, so roughly $20,500 per kg to LEO. Tallying the full cost per Shuttle launch (i.e. the cost to the tax payers over the full history of the program) runs to about $1.5 billion per launch, so adjust those numbers above up by a factor of 3.

In the press conference about an hour ago, I think I heard Gwynne Shotwell (President, SpaceX) say Russia offers a seat for $63M, whereas SpaceX will be offering NASA Dragon launches in the $30M range. A Dragon holds seven astronauts.

The Russians were offering seats in the $30M range as well until the shuttle was retired. There was a lot of anger over the adjustment.

SpaceX lists launch prices on their website. The prices for the Falcon 9 are a little ways down on this page: http://www.spacex.com/falcon9.php

And once we get one of ULA's long duration cryogenic vehicles [1] in orbit the game changes tremendously.

An in-orbit depot system for fuel would open up the moon pretty effectively.

[1] http://www.ulalaunch.com/site/docs/publications/Integrated%2...

In short, they will be launching 1200 pounds of supplies, remotely doing a bunch of maneuvers designed to prove to NASA that they can get around safely in space, and if those go OK, docking with the ISS.

This is so much cooler than a facebook IPO, I must say -- commercial US robot rocket ISS reloading. Come on!!

of course it's cooler than FB IPO. on one side, we have a bunch of guys selling ads. on the other, the stars.

Man, I've missed that attitude. My childhood was in the 80s, when the dream was still only in its early phases of being strangled by the monstrosity that the whole NASA system has become. We could use a bit of optimism about the future.

May history show this as the beginning of the second space age.

I get caught up in the romantics of this.

We could be explorers again like Magellan or Shackleton, this time charting the vast, infinitude of the stars. We could see planets and moons that are but specks in a telescope. It has been so easy, over the last few years, to become jaded with politics and our society and the minutia of technology. SpaceX gets me excited about "the future (of our species)" which hasn't happened in a long time.

Doesn't it bother you that you won't be the one doing the exploring? I'm insanely envious of these people and sometimes I wish manned spaceflight would end. Standing on the Moon sounds like the most amazing experience I can imagine and it pains me that I won't ever get there and even if I would, I would just be the umpteenth tourist, littering up the place.

I would absolutely love to stand on the surface of Mars or see Alpha Centauri with my own eyes, but I also know that such things are outside of my grasp. Poets and philosophers make for lousy explorers. It is enough for me that we, as a species, are reaching upward. It is enough for me that we, as a people, are overcoming chains that were not even imagined by our ancestors -- tasks so difficult, so alien that they would only describe it as touching the face of god. This is about more than the whimsical realized dream of an individual; it is the progression of the entire species.

This is how human beings are made great.

It's almost a cliche on the Intarwebs, but it might help you to read some Dawkins, specifically The Selfish Gene.

The progress of a species does not happen for the benefit of individual members, and that's true for us as humans as well. In that sense, as long as someone makes it, we all make it.

(Which is why it bothers me that so much is apparently riding on this one mission. The job of carrying human spaceflight forward is too much responsibility for one man, one company, or even one government, and Musk might do well to remind everyone of that before the launch.)

anne passovoy wrote a beautiful song about this, "harbors". you can see the lyrics here[1], though sadly it's hard to find a recording.

[1] http://www.stonekettle.com/2011/07/next-step-americas-future...

The SpaceX website has a pdf with mission details. Here is the table of contents:

3 Mission Highlights 4 Mission Overview 6 Dragon Recovery Operations 7 Mission Objectives 9 Mission Timeline 11 Dragon Cargo Manifest 13 NASA Slides – Mission Profile, Rendezvous, Maneuvers, Re-Entry and Recovery 15 Overview of the International Space Station 17 Overview of NASA’s COTS Program 19 SpaceX Company Overview 21 SpaceX Leadership – Musk & Shotwell Bios 23 SpaceX Launch Manifest - A list of upcoming missions 25 SpaceX Facilities 27 Dragon Overview 29 Falcon 9 Overview 31 45th Space Wing Fact Sheet


Keep in mind, this is still just a test. If they get off the pad without exploding that's awesome, getting to orbit is super awesome, and actually reaching the ISS is simply amazing.

Just to make it clear, it's just the launch tomorrow - they won't be attempting to dock until Tuesday (mission day 4), after (hopefully) they've passed all the manoeuvring tests.

I'm impressed that NASA is allowing this. Can you imagine what it would be like to be the guy who has to sign off on that decision? Even if you have every confidence, imagining what would happen if things went wrong?

When the Japanese HTV resupply vehicle was designed to do this same mission (being berthed with the robotic arm to US segment instead of docking like Russian Progress or ESA's ATV), the Japanese wanted to dock on their first launch. NASA said "do you really value the lives of our astronauts so little?" and demanded this test program. SpaceX have to pass the same test NASA had for JAXA back in the day. (source - JAXA video on HTV program. Please link if you can find it again because I can't.)

This mission has been planned for a long, long time.

There have been several delays for more testing. At the end of the day, it seems that getting the software right was the biggest deal, but they've done many many simulation runs.

There's also a substantial on-orbit demonstration before Dragon is allowed anywhere near ISS.

There's still a lot that can go wrong, but almost all of it will result in a decision to de-orbit Dragon rather than going ahead with ISS docking.

Nonetheless, <fingers firmly crossed>

By the time it's anywhere near the station, it'll be moving at a pretty small speed relative to the ISS. The station's going to manually grab and pull in the spacecraft to avoid any automated docking "oopsies". Beyond those, the risk is pretty squarely in SpaceX's court.

I'm imagining something like a thruster getting stuck on at a distance where it's far enough to build up some speed but close enough to have a decent chance of hitting. I know the relative speeds aren't high, but the ISS isn't exactly heavily armored either. I doubt it would take much of a speed difference in a collision to do some real damage.

I'm sure the odds of anything like that going wrong are extremely low, but not zero, and so I admire the fortitude it would take to give a "yes" decision to this even so.

While that window is non-zero, it is also very, very small.

I'm sure. It's just that the urge to CYA for a unique $100 billion object has got to be huge.

Overseeing the dawn of a new era of human spaceflight? Cutting through the mountain of technical hurdles and bureaucratic processes to get this actually done?

Fuck CYA. There is no CYA here. There is success, and there is failure. As it should be.

I fully approve of what they're doing, I'm just somewhat surprised that old, stodgy, NASA was able to get past their ingrained CYA instincts.

SpaceX is definitely cheaper to NASA. But it is not really cheap considering space programs like that of India (ISRO). For example PSLV used for Chandrayaan-1 costs $17m per flight. A little outsourcing won't hurt NASA here.

There's a live discussion on the launch here: http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/edu_flash.html

Watching this live discussion is fascinating. There's a teacher who teaches 7 and 8 year olds asking how their love for Legos and video games could translate into a career in space exploration.

A career in space exploration. That's real today.

Just imagine how much more real it will be when those 7 and 8 year olds are all grown up.


I run the computer lab at an elementary school, and I make sure to tell all my classes that if they are willing to work hard for it, they could move to Mars at some point during their lives.

At the rate SpaceX is going, the students I have now are going to witness an incredible amount of major advancements in space travel and related technologies. I try to make sure they all know this, and some are already coming into the computer lab during break to talk about space exploration, careers in space, etc. These are just 5th graders! It makes me almost as excited to see their interest as I am to about missions like this.

Shaping up to be a momentous weekend for tech!

I hope it will be featured live on NASA TV.

There will also be live streaming on the SpaceX website. They've invested in better video streaming infrastructure since the COTS1 launch, so hopefully this will stand up to demand. Everything worked well during the static-fire test a couple of weeks ago -- which is obviously less popular than the actual launch, but still drew in a fair few viewers.

NASA's site says launch coverage will begin at 3:30am (http://www.nasa.gov/exploration/commercial/cargo/cots_tv_sch...)

My only complain about this is that it will not have the Pan-Am logo on its side when it docks with the ISS.

It would be sooooo cool.

I know I'm not adding real value to the conversation by saying this, but I've still got to say it for the record:

This is amazing! Really impressive how much progress this startup is making in just a few short years.

What is an instantaneous launch window?

It means the launch has to happen at that exact moment, otherwise the path of the spacecraft in orbit will be too far away from the space station for a rendezvous to be possible.

From what I heard, they have multiple such launch windows, each about an hour and a half apart (each corresponding to an orbit of the earth by the ISS)

This is so exciting! I hope it succeeds. How cool would it be to put a man on mars in a few decades?

Captain's log, star date 1312.4

Or woman.

Hmm. Actually, and woman. Gender neutrality powers, activate!

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