Waco SpaceX facility prepares rocket for launch

The Falcan 9 takes off on a demonstration flight on Sept. 29. SpaceX designs and manufactures the Falcon 9, which is a two-stage rocket used for the transport of satellites into orbit.  (Photo credit SpaceX)
The Falcan 9 takes off on a demonstration flight on Sept. 29. SpaceX designs and manufactures the Falcon 9, which is a two-stage rocket used for the transport of satellites into orbit. (Photo credit SpaceX)
By Rebecca Fiedler
Staff Writer

Is it a natural disaster? Is it the apocalypse? Not to worry – it’s SpaceX!

Waco is home to the only development facility of privately owned spacecraft company, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., also known as SpaceX. Once parts for rockets and space craft are engineered and maufactured at other SpaceX locations around the country, Waco is the place they are sent to be tested before they are sent to a different SpaceX location to be launched, said Jeff Van Treuren, the test director at the Waco facility.

SpaceX is the only American company that can take cargo both to and from the International Space Station, Van Treuren said. SpaceX often works closely with NASA.

Recently SpaceX in Waco has been testing the vertical takeoff and landing of rocket Grasshopper, Van Treuren said.

“Here in Texas we’ll lift that thing off and land it a couple of times a month, even,” Van Treuren said. “As far as actually sending stuff into space, I think we will launch at least three times this year.”

The goal for SpaceX with the Grasshopper is to make the first stage vehicle section of the rocket reusable, where the capsule is not the only part of the rocket that returns to Earth, Van Treuren said.

Another project of SpaceX is a rocket called the Falcon 9. The Falcon 9 is a payload to orbit. Instead of being used for commercial space tourism, it hauls cargo into orbit, such as to get items to the International Space Station, Van Treuren said. According to SpaceX’s website, the Falcon 9, named after the Millenium Falcon from the Star Wars movies, was designed for maximum reliability.

“Falcon 9 features a simple two-stage design to minimize the number of stage separations,” the website states. “Historically, the main causes of launch failures have been stage separations and engine failures. With nine engines on the first stage, it can safely complete its mission even in the event of a first-stage engine failure.”

SpaceX has launched the Falcon 9 six times and all launches were successful, he said.

The most recent launch of the Falcon 9 was an upgraded version of the rocket, Van Treuren said. The engines and tanks were upgraded, as well as storage capacity.

The next step of the project with Falcon 9 is to get it man rated which means for it to be suitable for manned flight.

“We are working on getting our vehicle man rated, but that’s still a couple of years out,” Van Treuren said.

The Dragon, which carries cargo, is the space capsule portion of the Falcon 9. It flies to the International Space Station and can return and re-enter, Van Treuren said. The Dragon is what SpaceX is trying to make ready to carry people.

“The big thing there is we’ve got to deal with the launch-abort system, so we’re developing that right now,” Van Treuren said.

SpaceX has is also developing a rocket called the Falcon Heavy, whose expected launch is in 2014, SpaceX’s website states.

“The Falcon Heavy is really exciting because it’s three first stages strapped together and just a single second stage on top of it,” Van Treuren said. “The idea is that you get more payload into orbit. The Falcon Heavy is exciting, because it’ll be 27 engines firing at the same time.”

Van Treuren also said the Falcon Heavy will be the second-most powerful rocket in history, second only to the Saturn V moon rocket of 1973. SpaceX’s website states the Falcon Heavy is the most powerful rocket and carries more than twice the payload of the space shuttle.

Rocket testings from SpaceX have sometimes caught Waco area locals offguard. People from Waco posted on social media that larger engine tests have shocked and surprised them. Responses to rocket testings ranged from suspicion of something happening at Fort Hood military base, to bombing from North Korea, to the rapture of Christian souls.

A few years ago SpaceX tested the first stage of a space vehicle that was a propellant with nine engines strapped to it, Van Treuren said.

“You fire those all simultaneously and it gets kind of loud,” he said of the engines.

Carolyn Hoy is a citizen of Crawford, a town near the Waco facility. Hoy said she recalls the night the nine-engine vehicle was tested.

Normally Hoy knows in advance when rockets are being tested at the SpaceX facility, because there are billboards on the highway near her house alerting locals that a test is going to happen, Hoy said. But on that night in particular she was not prepared.

The windows of Hoy’s house were rattling and there was an orange glow outside that lit up the night sky, Hoy said. Initially she thought the commotion was an earthquake, but it continued for numerous minutes, and she decided it was not and earthquake. Hoy then got in her car and drove toward the source of the orange light, though she did not know that at the time it was a SpaceX launch.

“I legitimately thought Jesus was coming back, and I was going to Jesus,” she said.

Other Wacoans expressed that their children also suspected the launch to be the biblical rapture.

“Really; I thought maybe the heavenly trumpets sounded in heaven, and that was the trumpet, and I was going,” Hoy said, laughing. “And I just followed the orange glow up the road a ways until I realized what it was.”