The maiden flight of a new, highly advanced and powerful SpaceX rocket is scheduled for tomorrow morning at 9 am PDT from the Vandenberg launch range in California. The new rocket, called the Falcon 9 v. 1.1 - a typically massive understatement of the level of progress it represents over the original Falcon 9 - has new and drastically more powerful (and more efficient) engines, the Merlin 1D, which are arranged in a different configuration than before, has a substantially longer tank and more fuel, and is designed to relight after stage separation in hope of eventually allowing stages to land back on the pad.
The 1.1 will, it's hoped, evolve through incremental tweaking into the Falcon 9-R, whose first stage will be fully reusable and capable of landing back at the launch site. Moreover, the 1.1/9-R would serve as the core of the three-core Falcon Heavy that would - if I understand correctly - serve as the workhorse of SpaceX's Mars ambitions and its "ULA killer" that would shatter the current Boeing/Lockheed monopoly on US military and intelligence launches. Here's the 1.1 at Vandenberg, BTW:
The timetable for these planned evolutions is astonishing: Between 1 and 3 years to evolve from the 1.1 currently on the pad to the 9-R and FH. And SpaceX has proven itself capable of such amazing speeds, since the original Falcon 9/Dragon flew its inaugural flight only 3 years ago, and the much smaller Falcon 1 that initially demonstrated the Merlin engine had its first successful flight only two years before that. This should be made clear: The rocket you see above is the most advanced ever built by humans, by a wide margin, and is not even the end-product. It's not the most powerful (that honor goes to the Saturn V), but in terms of technology is far ahead of anything else that has ever been built.
Given that both the rocket and the SpaceX launch facility at Vandenberg are new, delays are likely, so the launch may not happen tomorrow - but SpaceX has also proven itself much more robust at keeping to schedule than other launch providers, so they might very well hit the mark. Moreover, they're ramping up production of 1.1s and Dragons at their factory in Hawthorne, CA, and beginning to churn them out like Khrushchev's proverbial "sausages." The plan, according to SpaceX, is to ultimately manufacture forty 1.1/9-R cores per year. Here are some awesome new images from the factory floor:
Dragons in production:
1.1first stage cores in production - in the first image, try to see the little humans working on the rockets to get a sense of scale:
The Falcon Heavy, when they get around to it, will basically be three of the 1.1/9-Rs strapped together side-by-side. That will be the third most powerful rocket of all time (still less than Saturn V, and also less than the Soviet Energia that only flew twice), and by far the most powerful in operation.
Also, here is one of the planned landing legs that will be attached to the 9-R once the various engine relight and landing technologies are evolved in the 1.1 - it's configured as it would look deployed, but during launch would be folded up against the rocket body (the dude in the picture is venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson):
The 1.1 currently on the launch pad does not have landing legs, but its first stage will rather just test the relight capability and see if it can hit the ocean softly. Although SpaceX is cautious about the test, and says failure is likely, the fact that it's even being attempted is revolutionary. The 1.1 sacrifices some payload capacity in order to have fuel for relighting, which no corporatized, stock-driven launch company could or would do. And yet it's still so powerful and so efficient that it remains an incredible bargain with a lot of payload capacity.
Here are some Merlin 1D engines in front of the octagonal harness that will hold them at the base of the rocket:
They had conducted a static test fire on the 19th that gives a brief glimpse of what the early seconds of the launch will look like:
It is a very skinny rocket all by its lonesome without the other two cores that will be strapped to its sides in the Falcon Heavy, so it will definitely look a bit weird rising into the sky.
So to summarize, this launch represents a lot of firsts, and a lot of bold risks:
1. First launch of the Falcon 9 1.1: (a)First launch of the Merlin 1D engines on the first stage and the Merlin 1D Vac engine on the upper stage. (b)First launch of the extended first-stage fuel tanks. (c)First launch of the octagonal engine configuration on the first stage.
2. First attempt to relight the first stage after stage separation (as far as I know).
3. First launch of an F9 for a primary customer other than the US government.
4. First use of a "clamshell" payload fairing by SpaceX, since it's launching a satellite rather than a Dragon.
5. First polar-orbit launch by SpaceX. Vandenberg is used for polar launches because the Pacific Ocean is in the opposite direction from Earth's rotation, so equatorial launches would be needlessly costly under most circumstances, and they don't want to launch over land for insurance and regulatory purposes. So they launch to the South rather than the West. I think.
6. First use of SpaceX's brand-new launch facilities at Vandenberg.
As an added treat for dessert, the recent successful launch of Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft looked awesome, although technologically and economically it has far less significance than what SpaceX is doing. Check these images out:
Some videos of the Antares launch are worth watching:
It's a pity that Orbital's approach is a dead-end, but their launches definitely look cool. Anyway, if SpaceX launches tomorrow and succeeds, knock on wood, a huge leap forward will have been taken. And even if they don't succeed, they know the risks they're taking and seem fully prepared to push forward at maximum speed to achieve the objective. Their customer, the Canadian government, was given a huge discount for taking the risk of flying on a new rocket, so even if it fails it's all good.
That's what's great about SpaceX: Failure isn't failure, it's just an unexpected and somewhat irritating lesson in how to achieve success. So they're able to push ahead in a handful of years with advances that would be implemented by larger launch companies over ten or twenty years. It's the poster child of a purpose-driven corporation for whom money is simply the means, and it's one of the few organizations of any kind in the world doing exactly what it should. And if it succeeds at its ultimate goals, the whole world - all humanity, and all life of this planet wins.
In other words, I say this without hesitation or exaggeration: This upcoming launch tomorrow is the most important thing happening in the world. And because SpaceX is so committed and so financially secure, even the failure of the launch would still move things forward. This is the unbridled essence of progress and hope in action. There will probably be delays because everything is new, but whether they light the candle tomorrow or next week or whenever, this rocket is the first step on the real stairway to heaven.
12:45 PM PT: I should add that the 1.1/9-R will be the rocket that transports astronauts to the space station starting around 2015.
2:52 PM PT: Ooo, just saw this. This guy timed a skydive just as a Delta 2 rocket was taking off nearby: