Falcon 1 was the first rocket developed by SpaceX. It is a two-stage launch vehicle capable of putting a metric ton (1000 kg) into low Earth orbit. Falcon 1 uses a single Merlin, a SpaceX-developed, LOX-kerosene rocket engine producing ~570,000 newtons of thrust (for comparison, a single Shuttle main engine burns LOX-hydrogen fuel and produces about 2,300,000 newtons of thrust). The Falcon 1 was designed to put relatively small satellites into low earth orbit. With such payload capacity, it is also capable of sending 100-200 kg microsats beyond LEO, into cislunar space.

Falcon 1 made five launches. The first three failed, however, the subsequent two flights were successful, the first successful launch making it the first privately funded and developed liquid-propellant rocket to reach orbit. The fifth launch was its first commercial flight and placed RazakSAT into low Earth orbit.

Launch of a Falcon 1 rocket from the SpaceX launch site on Kwajalein Atoll, September 28, 2008. Chris Thompson/SpaceX
Launch of a Falcon 1 rocket from the SpaceX launch site on Kwajalein Atoll, September 28, 2008. Credits: Chris Thompson/SpaceX

Not an easy journey

After three consecutive failures, a private spaceflight firm’s Falcon 1 rocket successfully blasted into space late Sunday to become the first privately built liquid-fueled booster to reach orbit.

The two-stage Falcon 1 rocket lifted off at about 7:15 p.m. EDT (2315 GMT) from the U.S. Army’s Ronald Reagan Ballistic Defense Test Site on the Kwajalein Atoll in about 2,500 miles (4,023 km) southwest of Hawaii. The successful space shot came less than a month after an engine timing error during stage separation doomed SpaceX’s third Falcon 1 test.

“As the saying goes, the fourth time’s the charm,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told an elated group of 500 employees at his Hawthorne, Calif.-based headquarters. “This is one of the best days of my life.”

Good to know

The first launch failed after 25 seconds of flight. The second flight successfully launched and staged, but did not reach orbit. After the third attempt at flight failed during staging, a review board looked in detail at SpaceX’s launch processing stream and made recommendations for some significant changes. The next launch was successful in putting a dummy payload into orbit.

Much of the private start-up capital for SpaceX was used to develop Falcon 1. They also received some government funding from other than NASA. The Department of Defense (DoD) needed reliable, quick, and cheap space access for small payloads. To that end, SpaceX received funding from several DoD entities, including several million dollars from the U.S. Air Force under a program to develop launch capability for DARPA (a defense research agency). Space X was given access to and the use of DoD launch facilities at the Reagan Test Site (formerly Kwajalein Missile Range) in the Marshall Islands.

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