As Goes SpaceX, So Goes 'New Era' For NASA
In a climb that lit a predawn sky and a new era in exploration, the first private cargo-carrying spacecraft to attempt reaching the International Space Station successfully began its journey on Tuesday.
The launching of a Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket by Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, in partnership with NASA, is part of a roughly two-week mission to test whether Dragon can dock to and undock from the space station.
If so, the company will join four other entities that have been able to send a spacecraft there: the United States, Russia, Japan and the European Union.
Both NASA and SpaceX officials during post-launching news conferences acknowledged that although much work remains, the launching itself was a historic feat.
"It was like winning the Super Bowl,” said Elon Musk, founder and CEO of the Hawthorne, Calif.- based company, adding he hopes the progress so far will dispel doubts about the nascent commercial space industry.
The liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Fla., follows nearly a year since NASA retired its space shuttle fleet and, subsequently, has been without a replacement transportation system. As a result, the agency has been solely dependent on foreign providers for continued crew and cargo access to and from the space station.
NASA has purchased seats through 2016 on Russia's Soyuz, presently the only operational manned spacecraft, which launches from and lands in Kazakhstan. For cargo resupply missions, NASA has agreements to utilize Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle through 2014 and Japan's H-II Transfer Vehicle through 2016.
To close its capability gap, the agency plans to transfer the role of cargo and crew transportation for low-Earth orbit - where the space station is located - to the American private sector. The agency, on the other hand, would continue to work on developing a heavy-lift rocket and capsule - the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPVC), respectively - for beyond low-Earth orbit.
This is SpaceX's second Falcon 9/Dragon flight under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which aims to provide a commercial cargo-carrying capability to and from the space station. The first Dragon/Falcon 9 flight occurred in 2010, when SpaceX proved the ability to send a spacecraft to low-Earth orbit and recover it, another first for a private company.
SpaceX reported it has received $381 million for completing 37 of 40 milestones worth a possible $396 million set in that agreement.
Orbital Sciences is also a COTS participant, and its demonstration flight to the space station is planned for no earlier than September.
Dragon will spend Wednesday catching up to the space station, perform a fly-by Thursday and then may be cleared for docking Friday.
The spacecraft will be greeted by six people - two Americans, one Dutch and three Russians - who are currently living and working onboard the space station. The orbiting complex - a collaboration spanning the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia and Europe- will continue through at least 2020.
Among the congratulations:
"Dock on baby! Dock on!" said representatives of the Space Frontier Foundation.
“The entire team at SpaceX and at NASA should be commended,” said Michael Lopez-Alegria, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “It is easy to forget that this is indeed rocket science.”
SpaceX is also a participant in NASA's Commercial Crew Program (CCP) - established to help the agency acquire, via a multi-phase competition, a commercial crew-carrying capability to the space station and other low-Earth orbit destinations. Other contenders in the ongoing race include Boeing, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, as well as Alliant Techsystems, United Launch Alliance and Excalibur Almaz. NASA said it plans to ultimately contract at least two providers.
Congress has been at least mildly encouraged though still skeptical of the agency's progress, based on the more-than-a-dozen related hearings since last year.
"NASA’s decision to rely on the new commercial vehicles...is inherently risky because the vehicles are not yet proven and are experiencing delays in development,” said Cristina Chaplain, the Government Accountability Office's director of acquisition and sourcing management, at a hearing in March.
“Further, NASA does not have agreements in place for international partners to provide cargo services to the [space station] beyond 2016," Chaplain said. "The agency will also face a decision regarding the need to purchase additional seats on the Russian Soyuz vehicle beyond 2016, likely before commercial vehicles have made significant progress in development, given the three-year lead time necessary for acquiring a seat."
NASA's funding environment has also been to and fro.
The 2010 NASA Authorization Act, which designates program guidelines for 2011-2013, authorizes $500 million each fiscal year for CCP. However, President Obama's 2013 budget request for the program is $829.7 million. In contrast, funding bills for fiscal 2013, H.R.5326 and S.2323 - neither of which has yet passed both chambers - would allocate only $500 million and $525 million, respectively. Congress and the administration must agree on an amount by Oct. 1., the beginning of the next fiscal year. For fiscal 2012, the program has been appropriated an estimated $406 million, nearly only half what the administration proposed.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and other officials have testified that another reduced funding year would likely delay the commercial crew vehicle availability even longer, to beyond 2017. Lawmakers in both the Democrat-led Senate and Republican-led House have responded that NASA should focus first and foremost on completing the SLS and MPCV, which is government-owned and required to serve as a backup system for access to the space station.
President Obama has tasked NASA to conduct a manned mission to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars by the mid-2030s. A version of the SLS/MPCV system is expected to support such missions. However, NASA has said the first manned SLS/MPCV test mission is targeted for no earlier than 2021. The destination of that test mission remains to be determined.
If Dragon demonstrates it can berth with the space station, SpaceX said it can begin this year to fulfill a 2008 contract signed with NASA for a minimum of 12 flights carrying supplies to and from the space station.
The first launch attempt last Saturday was aborted at the last second. SpaceX said the flight computer detected slightly high pressure in the engine 5 combustion chamber.
“I am hopeful that the Dragon spacecraft will successfully complete its mission,” said Ralph Hall (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, in a statement. “I hope SpaceX can build upon this success.”