Less than a year ago, the wheels of the Space Shuttle kissed the runway at the Kennedy Space Center for the final time, amid scenes of pride and distress as an icon of humanity’s adventure in space came to a bittersweet end. The hand wringing began almost immediately. What would the end of the Shuttle era mean for the United States’ crew-carrying aspirations? How could large payloads be reliably transported to and from the International Space Station? Moreover, NASA’s own future – including its nebulous goal of reaching an asteroid in the mid-2020s and Mars orbit a decade or so thereafter – seemed equally uncertain. That uncertainty diminished last month with the spectacular success of SpaceX’s first Dragon test mission to the space station and it now appears that a corner has been turned and a brighter future lies ahead.
The turning of that corner was recognised last week by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and SpaceX Chief Designer and CEO Elon Musk when they toured the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, and its Rocket Development Facility in McGregor, Texas, to thank hundreds of employees whose work has turned Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) from concept into reality. The two men viewed the actual Dragon craft, which flew for nine adrenaline-charged days in May and became the first commercial vehicle ever to dock at the space station. It also brought more than 1,360 lb of cargo back to Earth. “The Dragon capsule is a tangible example of the new era of exploration unfolding right now,” Bolden told the assembled team. “Commercial space is becoming a reality as SpaceX and our other commercial partners look ahead to future missions to the space station and other destinations.”
Standing alongside the former Shuttle commander and veteran Marine Corps general, entrepreneur Elon Musk could hardly contain a broad and wry smile. For him, the occasion must have conjured memories of the sentiment which lay behind his decision to call the craft ‘Dragon’…apparently in honour of Peter, Paul and Mary’s 1963 song ‘Puff, the Magic Dragon’. The name was reportedly chosen by Musk in response to critics who claimed that his company’s outlandish space goals were both unattainable and impossible. Yet ‘unattainable’ and ‘impossible’ can be applied to any endeavour, until it is attained or made possible, and the phenomenal vigour with which SpaceX has driven Dragon from the draughtsman’s board to low-Earth orbit to the waters of the Pacific Ocean is just as remarkable as last month’s mission itself.
Originally conceived almost a decade ago, Dragon was submitted to NASA as part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) programme in March 2006. Later that year, SpaceX and Kistler Aerospace were chosen to conduct a trio of demonstration flights in 2008-2010. Although Kistler failed to meet its obligations and its contract was later terminated, SpaceX moved from strength to strength and in December 2008 received a $1.6 billion CRS contract from NASA. Under the provisions of this contract – which will potentially expand in value to more than $3.1 billion – SpaceX will execute a dozen Dragon missions and transport a total of 44,000 lb of payload to the space station. Equipment in support of these missions, including the DragonEye proximity sensor, control panels and communications gear, arrived at the station aboard the Shuttle in 2009.
In the meantime, SpaceX pressed on with a successful test of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle in June 2010 and, six months later, with the maiden demo of the spacecraft itself, which performed two orbits of the Earth in a textbook three-hour flight. Last December, NASA approved SpaceX’s request to combine the final two flights of its demonstration trio into one mission – dubbed ‘COTS-2+’ – which unfolded with near-perfection from 22-31 May. In the wake of Bolden and Musk’s visit, the pace shows no sign of slacking. SpaceX’s first ‘true’ resupply mission under the CRS contract is scheduled for launch on 28 September 2012, followed by a second in December. Each will remain docked to the International Space Station for about a month.
Nevertheless, the euphoria surrounding Dragon has prompted the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) to deliver a message of caution that successes should not detract from the proper process of pushing commercial entities through NASA’s strict certification requirements for subsequent crewed missions. Retired Navy Vice Admiral Joseph Dyer, the chair of the ASAP, has warmly congratulated NASA and SpaceX on their accomplishment, but noted that the next stage – commercially delivering astronauts to the station – represents something markedly more complex and the exact procedures for certifying vehicles to carry human passengers remain to be worked out. Others, including ASAP member John Frost, have added that growing success could create friction, particularly if commercial partners grow to consider the need for NASA oversight or certification as unnecessary. The space agency is due to lay out the plan for how it will conduct its certification process in September 2012.
In the meantime, the ASAP has been quick to stress that SpaceX has provided a much-needed shot in the arm for the ongoing effort to commercially deliver cargo and crew into orbit. “The International Space Station is the key to our human spaceflight efforts right now,” Administrator Bolden told the assembled workforce in Hawthorne, last week, “and SpaceX’s successful resupply demonstration mission helped ensure it can achieve its full potential.” The ambitious nature of that potential dwarfs even Dragon itself, with expansive plans underway for the DragonRider crew-carrying vehicle, capable of performing a fully automated docking and remaining attached to the station for up to seven months. In doing so, it will represent one of several commercial providers whose aim is to end the United States’ reliance upon Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft and bring a home grown human spaceflight capability to fully operational status. In doing so, it can be hoped that NASA’s own exploration goals, beyond Earth orbit, will stand a greater chance of reaching fruition.