Space Access Gap: Closed!

SpaceX’s second successful Falcon 9 launch has just inserted the Dragon capsule into Earth orbit!

First Falcon 9 launch (SpaceX)

The Dragon vehicle will perform a series of check-outs over the next few orbits before re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. If all goes well, then this is a major success for SpaceX and NASA’s COTS program – which seeks to contract International Space Station supply missions to private companies after the Space Shuttle retires, so that ISS has more resupply mechanisms than the Russian Progress vehicle and European ATV. SpaceX wants to human-rate the capsule, as well, to provide astronaut transportation to orbit and even space tourism!

Today's launch (NASA)

Again, if all goes well, this mission ought to be vindication for President Obama’s vision for NASA: use commercial providers to get into Earth orbit, and then let NASA focus on the real envelope-pushing exploration. If the Falcon 9 gets to orbit, and the Dragon could take cargo or people up, then why don’t we just buy those for a fraction of the cost of the Ares 1/Orion system? Especially since that system would take many more years of development to become available to NASA. The Falcon 9 and Dragon will be ready much, much sooner!

Best of luck to the SpaceX team. And may the Congresspeople holding NASA’s purse-strings get their heads out of their pork barrels.

Update 1600 8 Dec 10: At the post-flight press conference, Elon Musk and Gwynne Shotwell of SpaceX gave an overview of the mission and a rosy assessment of its success. Apparently, the Falcon 9 second stage reached a very health apogee – well above the ISS orbit – the Dragon performed well enough in space to maintain a good lock on the TDRSS relay satellite, and it successfully splashed down within 10 km of its target and within a minute of its projected landing time. Musk stated a couple times that his “mind was blown” and pointed out that, had there been people on the Dragon spacecraft, they would have had “a very nice ride.” He thinks that all (“all”) Dragon needs to be human-rated are seats and an escape system, though he did admit that launch-escape system testing is both crucial and very hard. Apparently NASA officials told SpaceX that, if this flight went well, they would consider allowing an ISS rendezvous and docking on the next Dragon flight, so that may be a possibility for next year. Another Musk gem, on the politics of SpaceX’s activities: “any politician who wants to increase the deficit and reduce American access to space, go ahead and cut [the NASA Commercial Crew program].”

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