With another successful mission under its belt, SpaceX looks to be unstoppable on its quest to send astronauts to the International Space Station. Last month, a Falcon 9 successfully sent a cargo-laden Dragon capsule to the ISS. The Dragon’s splashdown last week on October 28 marked the company’s move into the third phase of its Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative with NASA.
SpaceX, like NASA did in its early life, has followed a progressive approach to spaceflight to this point.
Its first major milestone was a technical and baseline review. It demonstrated that both the Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule are able to fulfill low Earth orbital missions. At that point, the possibility of manned missions was discussed as an eventual capability on a longer term. SpaceX’s second major milestone included a breakdown for NASA of its plan to knock CCiCap milestones off its list under the $440 million Space Act Agreement.
“These initial milestones are just the beginning of a very exciting endeavor with SpaceX,” said NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager Ed Mango.
The third milestone, on which SpaceX is now embarking, has the company providing NASA with some pertinent information for future unmanned and manned flights. First, it will deliver an integrated systems requirements review outlining the techniques behind designing, building, and testing its Dragon and Falcon 9 vehicles. Second, SpaceX will demonstrate to NASA just how it intends to manage ground operations from launch to ascent, in-orbit operations, re-entry, and landing once it starts launching manned missions.
Of course, this isn’t the only thing SpaceX has been up to lately. This last mission to the ISS was the first of 12 planned cargo resupply missions. SpaceX has also completed its Space Act Agreement with NASA for the Commercial Crew Development Round 2 (CCDev2) initiative that preceded CCiCap. Under this program, SpaceX designed, developed and tested components of a launch abort system for the Dragon capsule. With NASA’s help in calculating loads and trajectories, SpaceX settled on large hypergolic engines called SuperDraco that propel the Dragon away from a rocket in the event of a launch abort to spare the crew.
This ongoing cooperation between NASA and SpaceX has been a fruitful partnership. “Our NASA team brought years of experience to the table and shared with SpaceX what components, systems, techniques and processes have worked for the agency’s human space transportation systems in the past and why they’ve worked,” said Jon Cowart, NASA’s SpaceX partner manager during CCDev2. “This sharing of experience benefitted both NASA and the company, and is creating a more dependable system at an accelerated pace.”
All these steps are putting manned launches closer on the horizon. “The Dragon spacecraft has successfully delivered cargo to the space station twice this year, and SpaceX is well under way toward upgrading Dragon to transport astronauts as well,” said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell.
As these development and certification initiatives progress, NASA will eventually have another way to get its astronauts up to the International Space Station. It’s a goal many Earthbound Americans would like to see happen sooner rather than later.