First: Go Atlantis!!!
Ever since the FY11 NASA budget came out, I’ve been anxious to see the success of the Falcon 9, SpaceX’s heavy-lift vehicle, and the Dragon capsule. A good Falcon launch and successful Dragon flight demo would be like jumping NASA’s Constellation program straight to an Ares I/Orion system prototype. This is the rocket and capsule that the new budget banks on for ISS resupply and astronaut transport. Of course, SpaceX had already won the ISS resupply contract before the new NASA budget came out, so this really isn’t that big a change from the status-quo solution to the space access gap – except that a successful man-rated Dragon would close that gap entirely!
For the bajillionth time, Mike Griffin’s Constellation Program was on track to do what we did 40 years ago, with what we used 30 years ago, 20 years from now. I know the program says “by 2020,” but it ain’t gonna happen, even with billions of extra dollars.
The new budget focuses NASA on in-space vehicles. Vehicles for carrying people throughout the Solar System. Vehicles for building colonies in space. Vehicles for taking people to planets. Vehicles for exploring planets. The kinds of vehicles that cannot be built on Earth and launched, whole, on a Saturn or Ares rocket. The kinds of vehicles that nobody but NASA would try to build. The kinds of vehicles that would move the human spaceflight program forward!
But, in exchange, NASA is not going to develop boosters. The space agency is going to send its astronauts – still NASA astronauts, dammit! – up to LEO on board vehicles bought from commercial providers. The outcry against this concept is based primarily on the objection that the commercial space access providers are “unproven.”
Well, phenomenal success of the Delta and Atlas lines aside, this is the proving ground. There’s a lot riding on the Falcon 9 flight test; the space community consensus could go dramatically one way or the other depending on the outcome. If SpaceX makes it, we can almost consider NASA fast-forwarded to what Constellation would have done in 2015, or later. (And we’ll be much closer to buying tickets to space!) They just have to buy their launchers from SpaceX, instead of….contracting to ATK to build them.
Good luck to the SpaceX launch crews! Hope the launch is spectacular!