Yesterday’s announcement that SpaceX will be conducting engine testing at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi has provided a bit more insight into the company’s future plans, as well as its steadily evolving business savvy.
For those who follow the technology, the announcement is one of the first pieces of publicly released information regarding the long rumored Raptor engine, which has been a subject of conjecture for a number of years. Once thought to be a hydrogen/oxygen upper stage engine project, speaking to the Royal Aeronautical Society almost a year ago, Elon Musk indicated of SpaceX’s future engine development work, “it’s gonna be methane.”
The reasons are two-fold. In the first place, as Elon Musk has pointed out, liquid methane, a “soft cryogenic” is considered to be easier to work with than liquid hydrogen, but offers more performance than kerosene, making it a sort of goldilocks fuel. Furthermore, it is a very inexpensive fuel, and as the progress being made with Grasshopper, and SpaceX’s near success with recovering the Falcon 9 first stage on its first flight indicates, the era of re-usable rockets appears to be in sight. Fuel costs will actually matter. And then there is Mars. The key to any fully re-usable space transportation system is making it work both ways, and if there is any hope of making an Earth- Mars transportation infrastructure work, it almost has to be based on methane due to the relative ease with which it can be derived from the Red Planet’s CO2 atmosphere.
Which brings us to the other intriguing bit of data; the size of the engine, cited in press releases as approximately 650,000 lbs. thrust, which would almost indisputably make it a new main stage engine, and the centerpiece of the next generation booster beyond the Falcon Heavy. Although there is an enormous gulf between testing a developmental engine and deploying an entirely new launch system, (as the apparent demise of the J-2X, still being tested at Stennis would indicate), the real takeaway may be that Musk’s 12-15 year prediction for crewed flights to Mars is closer to reality than anyone thought.
Electing to perform testing at Stennis marks a significant departure from the practice of doing all its propulsion testing at its own facility in McGregor, Texas, but it makes sense for a number of reasons. To begin with, as soon it resolves any remaining issues with the Merlin 1-D Vacuum engines which led to an aborted second stage re-start on the first flight of the Falcon 9 V-1.1 on its maiden launch, the company will almost certainly turn much of its testing focus in McGregor to beginning the process of testing the Falcon Heavy. Add to that, ongoing work for a Dragon capsule pad abort and in-flight abort tests schedule to take place next year, McGregor will certainly not lack for work.
In deciding to conduct Raptor testing at Stennis, and in particular emphasizing that the work to be done to ready the stand for methane, which is being paid for by NASA and the State of Mississippi, will result in a stand which will be available to other users as well, SpaceX may be quietly and very subtly paving the way for other companies to follow suit, and adopt a wholesale switch to methane as the rocket fuel of the future. NASA has talked about it. Russian is talking about it now, but so far very little has been actually done to promote it. That appears to be changing.
The move to involve Stennis in such a game changing technology may also help tone down the animosity towards SpaceX demonstrated by House Science space sub-committee chair Steven Palazzo earlier this year, when he refused to allow a letter in support of NASA’s plan to lease pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center to be entered into the record without vetting it first. With ongoing developments in Texas, Florida and now Mississippi as well as its home in California, SpaceX is slowly, very slowly, but perhaps inexorably, peeling back the death grip the legacy aerospace companies have on Congress and giving elected representatives more reasons to take a different perspective on how they view “NewSpace.”