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  • Defense and Intel Could Catch A SpaceX Ride
    Posted by Bill Sweetman 11:55 AM on Apr 07, 2011

    Frank Morring reports here on Elon Musk's announcement of the Falcon Heavy. However, there is a big military angle to SpaceX's plans.

    The first Falcon Heavy is expected to launch from Vandenberg AFB in 2013, and Musk is "very optimistic that we will soon have a contract" for the big launcher from the USAF/National Reconnaissance Office.

    The NRO currently uses the Delta IV Heavy for large satellite launches. It is the most powerful US launcher since the Saturn V and lifts off from the SLC-6 complex, finally in use after decades in mothballs -- implying that current launches are heavier than any preceding intelligence satellite. Moreover, the USAF is sponsoring the more powerful Rocketdyne RS-68A, delivering a claimed 13 percent increase in lift, to handle yet bigger loads.

    Even with that, the Falcon Heavy's 120,000 pound payload would be double that of the Delta IV. But if the SpaceX rocket is -- as the company plans -- much less costly than the Delta IV, the NRO does not need to use its full payload, or the USAF could fill some of that capacity with ride-along payloads.

    The USAF and NRO's interest in Falcon Heavy also suggests that the intelligence community plans to continue to launch large spacecraft, following the collapse of the Future Imagery Architecture program.

    If SpaceX continues to hit its cost and reliability goals, too, it will make a big difference to the affordability of two classes of military spacecraft: large constellations such as the Precision Space Tracking System and reusable X-37B-type spaceplanes. (The latter is easily within the capability of the Falcon 9.) Musk says that SpaceX has proposed its Dragon capsule to the DoD as a reusable space platform -- and suggests that its heatshield would protect it from some anti-satellite threats.

    Musk also confirmed this week that SpaceX will continue to pursue greater reusability -- "a fundamental long-term ambition", saying that a fully reusable system "is pivotal" to his intention to support the foundation of a sustainable human civilization on another planet. He points out that the cost of propellant for a Falcon 9 flight is around $150-$200,000, compared to $50 million for the vehicle, "so there is efficiency to be had".

    Tags: ar99, spacex, os99

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