Cape Canaveral, FL, MAY 17TH, 2012 - For the first time in American spaceflight history, a private company will launch a rocket toward the International Space Station that could be the sign of things to come for America’s fledgeling space program.
Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX for short, will launch a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a capsule called “Dragon” from the Kennedy Space Center early Saturday morning. The unmanned flight is the first real test of a commercial spacecraft that could pave the way for ferrying astronauts to the orbiting outpost within the next few years.
After a two-day flight, the Dragon capsule will maneuver close to the International Space Station for a day of practice maneuvers before finally docking. The Dragon capsule will be carrying a half-ton of food and other non-essential items that will then be offloaded by the current space station crew in orbit.
Saturday’s flight by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. is “a thoroughly exciting moment in the history of spaceflight, but is just the beginning of a new way of doing business for NASA,” said President Barack Obama’s chief science adviser, John Holdren.
This has been a transition almost a decade in the making. When NASA announced plans to discontinue and retire the aging space shuttle fleet, NASA’s energies were shifted to focus on deep space exploration. By handing off low-earth orbit launches to privately funded businesses, NASA can free itself to focus on exploring beyond low Earth orbit for the first time in almost half a century.
Until the final retirement of the space shuttle program last summer, shuttle vehicles carried almost all supplies and equipment to the space station. Since then, American astronauts have had to rely on Russian capsules for rides while European, Japanese and Russian supply ships have been delivering cargo. This a trend that SpaceX and other private companies hopes to change. By launching privately funded vehicles, NASA can “rent a ride” per astronaut at a severely cheaper rate than what we pay per seat on a Russian Soyuz vehicle.
The key issue for NASA and these private companies is time. It will be at least four to five years before any private companies are capable of flying astronauts; a gap that infuriates many, including some members of Congress. Recently, Congressional members proposed budget cuts to NASA’s commercial space vehicle programs which reduce the number of rival companies, save money, and speed the process up.
NASA has already invested $381 million into the SpaceX effort, while the company has spent $1 billion over its 10-year lifetime. Additionally, NASA also invested $266 million to a second company, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp., which hopes to launch its Antares rocket and Cygnus capsule from Wallops Island, Va., by the end of 2012.
SpaceX will have only a split second, at 4:55 a.m. Saturday, to launch its rocket and capsule. (All spacecraft bound for the space station have instantaneous launch windows in order to sync up efficiently with the orbiting outpost.)
SpaceX already has achieved something no other commercial company has done. In 2012, it launched a spacecraft into orbit and brought it back intact. This time, the stakes are higher and the end result is bigger.
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