It was obviously a big disappointment not to reach orbit on this flight [Falcon 1, Flight 3]. On the plus side, the flight of our first stage, with the new Merlin 1C engine that will be used in Falcon 9, was picture perfect. Unfortunately, a problem occurred with stage separation, causing the stages to be held together. This is under investigation and I will send out a note as soon as we understand exactly what happened.
The most important message I’d like to send right now is that SpaceX will not skip a beat in execution going forward. We have flight four of Falcon 1 almost ready for flight and flight five right behind that. I have also given the go ahead to begin fabrication of flight six. Falcon 9 development will also continue unabated, taking into account the lessons learned with Falcon 1. We have made great progress this past week with the successful nine engine firing.
It’s good news that the upgraded Merlin engine worked flawlessly. They have to figure out what went wrong in the staging, obviously. But that really points up the issues with a multistage rocket. Two stages are more than twice the complexity of one. Unfortunately, the reality of modern rockets is that single stage to orbit (SSTO) is unlikely in any near term time frame. The mass fraction is just too small. Mass fraction is the percentage of the liftoff mass that can actually be payload.
One thing that I notice that’s different about SpaceX from the other “New Space” companies, most of the others are pursuing sub-orbital flight with highly reusable vehicles. These can be flown many times in a row, some of them even several times a day. And they are doing incremental development. Build a little, fly a little, make improvements and fly some more, gradually expanding the flight envelope until you reach the goal. For the current flock, it’s suborbital. And in doing that, you learn important things that can lead to orbital flight with the next round. There are many things you have to learn yet, but there is enough that you’ve reduced the risk going forward. Then again, moving from suborbital to orbital, you’d want to take baby steps along the way. Increasing the range and altitude of the suborbital flights, figuring out staging, thermal protection and all the other details along the way.
For a fairly comprehensive review of the possible means of getting to orbit using RLVs, read Jon Goff’s series. He needs to create a list of these in a single place. It’s too good a list to let get lost.