SpaceX hopes to supply ISS with new Falcon 9 heavy launcher

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Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), which has yet to launch its first rocket, is bidding to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) with its new Falcon 9 heavy launcher, which already has a $35 million US government payload contract for its maiden flight in the second quarter of 2007.

NASA is expected to release its broad agency announcement for supplying the ISS this month.

SpaceX is planning four versions of its Falcon 9, which has nine liquid oxygen and kerosene-powered Merlin engines clustered at the bottom of the core rocket’s first stage. The second stage will have one Merlin engine. Both stages will be recoverable by parachute and reusable, but the fairings are expendable.

The two “medium” Falcon 9 versions have 3.6m (11.8ft) and 5.2m fairings with 3.4t (7,480lb) payload and 3.1t to geostationary orbit (GTO), costing $27 million and $35 million per launch, respectively. It is the 3.1t-to-GTO, 5.2m-fairing medium Falcon 9 that will launch the US government payload.

The two “heavy” Falcon 9s have 5.2m fairings and 6.4t and 9.65t GTO payload capabilities. The 6.4t payload version costs $51 million and the larger version $78 million.

Existing heavy launches cost over $100 million for similar payloads. The heavy Falcon 9 versions will have two strap-on first-stage boosters, as well as the core rocket. However, development work for these will not start until a customer places an order.

“There is not a great amount of further development to be done [for the heavy versions],” says SpaceX chairman and chief executive Elon Musk. “We won’t spend that money until we have a customer. Then we will do aerodynamic analysis, separation systems, a few things like that.”

He adds that development of the medium versions would include the attachment points for the heavy’s two strap-on stages and the analysis for the loading expected for heavy Falcon 9s.

SpaceX will conduct a hold-down fire test of the Falcon 9’s first stage in the second quarter of 2006 and a fairing separation test in the fourth quarter. By then it hopes to have secured another 5.2m-fairing Falcon 9 contract with orbital hotel developer Bigelow Aerospace.

Bigelow had wanted to launch a payload on SpaceX’s yet-to-be-developed 1t-to-GTO Falcon 5, but decided it could use the Falcon 9 to launch a larger payload.

ROB COPPINGER/LONDON