SpaceX Moves into Phase Three

SpaceX entered into the history books yet again recently when its Falcon 9 rockets successfully launched one of the NewSpace’s firm’s Dragon spacecraft on a resupply run to the International Space Station. Photo Credit: Alan Walters /

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.

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule can hold seven astronauts in its crew configuration. Photo Credit: SpaceX

“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.

A SpaceX Dragon capsule bobs in the Pacific Ocean after a trip to the ISS in May 2012. Photo Credit: SpaceX

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.


  1. Just a small point but the recently completed Dragon mission was the 1st not the 2nd CRS flight.

    • SpaceX is the new NASA. Different for sure. NASA is a Government Agency. SpaceX is a commercial firm. NASA has a National Agenda. SpaceX has a commercial Agenda. Both have an entrepreneurs spirit. Both are about succeeding in the American way. Both are successful. I am proud of them both.

      • I think the matter of whether SpaceX or Orbital Sciences will be successful, and thus disruptive, in commercial space has yet to be answered. That answer will come over the next 12 months as they execute on their fixed-price CRS contracts. By that time, one year into their just-over 3-year contracts that end in 2015, there will be enough data to glean how well each is performing. Did they launch often enough and deliver sufficient cargo mass? Are profit margins in line with company expectations? If not, can that be remedied?

        My biggest doubts as to the viability of commercial space stem from the fact that only in aerospace is the starting position that commercial space requires NASA money to fund private hardware development. Aviation did not start with a gov’t check to Boeing, Douglas, Northrop, or Lockheed for new commercial aircraft DDT&E. We just experienced an election funded to the tune of well over $1.4B by individuals. So why the assumption that there is insufficient investor interest, and thus resources, to pay for SpaceX, Orbital, Boeing, or Sierra Nevada to develop their own craft? And if large investors will not fund the development of commercial space hardware, do they know something in calculating the downstream potential for profitability of space travel and tourism that starry-eyed folks, otherwise known as space advocates, do not?

        Could it be the case that they look at commercial aviation and think to themselves that commercial space will be even more challenged in reaching any-term profitability? As Richard Branson once said, “If you want to become a millionaire, there’s really nothing to it. Start as a billionaire and then buy an airline.” Or Warren Buffet on the, “…worst sort of business is one that grows rapidly, requires significant capital to engender the growth, and then earns little or no money. Think airlines.”

Atlantis Photo Feature Part One: Alan Walters

Atlantis Photo Feature Part Two: Mike Killian