SpaceX launch: the age of commercial spaceflight is here

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stands in front of a Falcon 9 rocket at SpaceX’s launch site in Florida. SpaceX

Late tomorrow evening (AEST), all going well, a Falcon 9 rocket will lift-off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. A few days after launch the craft will rendezvous in low-Earth orbit with the International Space Station (ISS).

This may sound pretty run-of-the-mill to most people, but it is a momentous, potentially game-changing event.

The Falcon 9 rocket has been designed, built and will be flown by Space Exploration Technologies, a privately-owned company. SpaceX, as the company has become known, was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, the internet entrepreneur who founded PayPal, and who is also a strong believer in human space exploration.

It is one of two companies that have been contracted by NASA to provide safe and reliable cargo delivery services to the ISS. The other is Orbital Science Corporation.

SpaceX

SpaceX has flown the Falcon 9 rocket twice before. The maiden flight in June 2010 was the first by a private company to put a payload into orbit and retrieve it after re-entry.

The second, in December that same year, launched the Dragon spacecraft into a stable orbit, then retrieved it intact after re-entry.

Dragon is the craft that will rendezvous with the ISS. It is a fully re-usable vehicle that in the future has the potential to carry passengers.

In tomorrow’s planned launch, Falcon 9 will boost the unmanned Dragon vehicle into an orbit close to that of the ISS. Over the next few days SpaceX will direct Dragon to perform a large number of important tasks. These include deploying solar array, confirming operation of a guidance system and performing controlled rocket burns for re-orientation.

These are requirements imposed by NASA before the Dragon spacecraft will be allowed to enter the Keep-Out Sphere (KOS), a 200-metre imaginary sphere drawn around the ISS.

If all goes well, Dragon will eventually be grabbed by a robotic arm and berth with the ISS. Due to the experimental nature of the flight, the cargo to be delivered is not critical to the ISS.

Artist’s conception of the Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX

Interestingly, both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences plan to use expendable rockets for cargo delivery to the ISS. These are very expensive vehicles (of the order of $20 million, depending on the size) that are thrown away after each launch, leading to the high cost of access-to-space.

While SpaceX currently uses modern manufacturing and management practices to reduce costs, it and other companies have future plans to make space cheaper using fully re-usable systems. These could use airbreathing propulsion in combination with rockets, and allow aircraft-like trips to space.

SpaceX launch site a Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The site had previously been used by the US Air Force to launch Titan rockets. SpaceX

It is important to view this launch in the context of the US future in space. Until now, NASA has been responsible for all US activities related to space exploration, and these can be broken down into three distinctly different activities:

  1. getting from Earth’s surface into a stable orbit
  2. robotic exploration of the solar system
  3. human exploration of the solar system.

All exploration of the solar system depends on first getting into Earth orbit, so NASA has invested a significant amount of its resources into this activity.

Falcon 9 Launch. The Falcon 9 rocket launched for the first time in June of 2010 from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. SpaceX

The Saturn V rocket that powered the Apollo program to the moon and the Space Shuttle were both designed to accomplish this task. But NASA has now reached a crossroads.

The agency does not have the funds to develop new rockets for delivery of cargo and astronauts to Earth orbit, as well as to conduct exciting exploration of the solar system.

If successful, the flight by SpaceX may enable NASA to start shifting its focus further out into space.

There are some [Members of congress; there have also been some submissions to congress from former astronauts] in the US who feel uncomfortable about NASA giving up its direct control of delivery to orbit, particularly where astronauts are involved.

That’s understandable and I don’t expect NASA astronauts to fly to the ISS with SpaceX or Orbital Sciences in the near term. But taking the burden of cargo delivery away from NASA will be an important psychological step.

SpaceX is an aggressive company, and has set itself a very difficult task. Even if it doesn’t succeed this time, it will no doubt learn from any mistakes and fly again. Tomorrow marks the opening of a new frontier.

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