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Is the Falcon 9 a launch vehicle or a spacecraft?

What are the key design features and why did NASA decide to use it for cargo instead of its own spacecraft?

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Falcon 9 is a launch vehicle. There have been two versions so far, with a third variant and a heavy lift version expected in 2014-2015 timeframe.

  • Falcon 9 V1.0 was the original design, using Merlin 1C engines and the engines were arranged in a tic-tac-toe, 3X3 grid on the first stage. Five of these were launched.
  • Falcon 9 v1.1 is the new model going forward. It uses a more powerful Merlin 1D engine, and arranges them in the Octaweb configuration. Eight engines in a circle, directly in line with the sidewall of the tanks, and a ninth engine in the center. It is longer, due to higher fuel usage by the upgraded engine.
  • Falcon 9R is a tentative name for a reusable first stage F9 v1.1. It may become a synonym for the 1.1 and is not clear at this time.
  • Falcon Heavy will be a launcher, with three side by side cores, that are basically Falcon 9 first stages on their own, and thus 27 engines at liftoff.

The upper stages for all models, to date, has been a similar diameter stage, with a single Merlin engine, adapted for vacuum use. I.e. Has a much larger bell to take advantage of reduced pressure for better performance. (F9 1.0 used the Merlin 1C Vac, and F9 v1.1, F9R, and FH will all use Merlin 1D Vac versions initially).

Merlin engines burn RP1 and LOX as fuel and oxidizer.

NASA is using it as a fully commercial means of transportation to low Earth orbit (LEO). Development of these commercial vehicles is part of NASA plan to transfer the routine LEO operations towards ISS to commercial sector so that NASA can focus on more challenging tasks in deep space (development of SLS, Orion, etc). Falcon 9 is launching the Dragon cargo capsule to ISS.

There is not only Falcon 9 rocket (by SpaceX), but also Antares (by Orbital Sciences) - another commercial launch vehicle, carrying the Cygnus cargo spacecraft.

Falcon 9 is a 2 stage rocket using liquid oxygen and rocket grade kerosene as fuel. It can carry 29,000 lb to LEO or 10,700 lb to geostationary transfer orbit.

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As MPV answers, the Falcon 9 is a launch vehicle. While the second stage could potentially reach orbit, it has no real inherent payload capacity.

However, for the future vehicle and engines that SpaceX is planning post Falcon 9, is a methane powered engine named Raptor. The speculation is that it is meant for a Mars departure stage, where a second or third stage on a future launcher (Falcon Heavy, or something bigger) will be used as the main engine/stage for missions to Mars.

In that case, the upper stage would potentially be considered a space craft in that context.

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