NASA's space shuttles are flying their final missions this year, but one commercial spaceflight company in California has a new, privately-built rocket standing ready to replace the aging workhorse.
Space Exploration Technologies' (SpaceX) new Falcon 9 rocket is already assembled in Cape Canaveral, Fla. for a debut in the first half of 2010. A following flight, sometime between May and November, would launch the cargo-carrying Dragon spacecraft to resupply the International Space Station.
Dragon could also eventually loft NASA astronauts into space by as early as 2014. Just don't call it a taxi service, said Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX. The company, founded by PayPal entrepreneur Elon Musk, has already launched satellites to orbit on its smaller, unmanned Falcon 1 rockets.
"Elon started this company with the hopes of making space more accessible for professional crews — not necessarily joy-riders or tourists — and really to facilitate the manned exploration of space," Shotwell told SPACE.com.
NASA's proposed 2011 budget request would scrap its new spacecraft plans and, instead, set aside about $6 billion over the next five years to support commercial spaceflight. That marks a major shift toward using private companies such as SpaceX to launch both cargo and humans into low Earth orbit.
SpaceX already holds a $1.6 billion contract with NASA for 12 flights to resupply the space station. Another company, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences, is building a new Taurus 2 rocket to launch its own cargo ship to the space station for NASA under a $1.9 billion contract for eight flights.
"One of the most exciting things, to me, about the 2011 NASA budget is that it acknowledges one of the biggest barriers to exploring space, and that barrier is how do you pay for it," said former NASA astronaut Ken Bowersox, who is now SpaceX's vice president for astronaut safety, during a Feb. 2 NASA event in Washington, D.C.
Bowersox said it is up to NASA and the government to set new destinations in space. Private companies like SpaceX have to figure out how to get there.
"It's a really great thing to watch what happens when you blend the skills that are only available in the government with the flexibility and creativity of private industry," Bowersox said.
First launch jitters, again
Still, SpaceX has not sugar-coated the challenges of launching a brand new rocket.
The company endured repeated heartbreak with three failed launches of its smaller Falcon 1 rocket beginning in 2006, but finally tasted success during the fourth launch in September 2008.
A fifth commercial launch in July 2009 marked two clean launches in a row, or what Shotwell deemed a "critical milestone" for the company. She added that the people at SpaceX remain "stubborn" and "tenacious" even as they acknowledge the challenges that lay ahead.
"History shows that the first two flights of any vehicle is a struggle," Shotwell said. "We're certainly not rushing to the flight line."
For Falcon 9, SpaceX has taken painstaking steps to get it right the first time.
The two-stage rocket stands 180 feet (55 meters) tall and is capable of hauling spacecraft or payloads weighing up to 23,000 pounds (10,450 kg) to low-Earth orbit. SpaceX has designs for a heavy-lift version, which would use two additional boosters to launch payloads of up to 70,548 pounds (32,000 kg) to low-Earth orbit.
The company built the main components of two Falcon 9 vehicles just for qualification and propulsion tests. That means the rocket slated for launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida actually represents the third Falcon 9 vehicle that SpaceX has built.
But all the computer simulations and firing tests on the ground can only go so far, Shotwell explained. Only launch day will show just how well a rocket's guidance and control perform under actual flight conditions.
Safety in commercial spaceflight
SpaceX plans to launch many unmanned cargo flights with Falcon 9 and establish a safety record before putting astronauts aboard. Yet it and other commercial spaceflight providers still face a number of doubts from the U.S. Congress, as well as from supporters of the cancelled Constellation program.
"We're not talking about putting crew on the first Falcon 9 flight," Shotwell said. She added that the idea of commercial spaceflight being inherently dangerous was "ludicrous," and pointed to commercial airlines as examples of reliable private enterprises.
An independent advisory panel also issued a January report that said private companies do not meet NASA's crew-rating standards.
Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, countered by calling the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel's findings "bizarre." He and Shotwell questioned how the panel came to its conclusion after barely spending any time reviewing SpaceX's vehicles or data.
"Commercial companies rely on the quality of their products and services to stay in business, and quality for ISS missions clearly means safety and reliability," Shotwell noted. "We stay alive based on our track record."
NASA has not yet officially established safety standards to rate commercial vehicles that would carry astronauts into space, but it has shared some of its existing guidelines, NASA officials have said. SpaceX has adopted temporary guidelines based on those existing crew ratings in anticipation of the U.S. space agency's desires.
"We don't anticipate that they'll make it any easier on us, and we don't want to be treated in a special way," Shotwell said. "We're designing the safest vehicle that we possibly can."
The new commercial space zone
Five astronauts have already undergone preliminary training with SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft, so that they know how to receive the unmanned Dragon during docking operations with the space station. But SpaceX has also prepared for the day when astronauts themselves will ride Dragon into space.
The main change for making Dragon crew-ready involves adding a launch escape system for the astronauts. Otherwise the spacecraft needs very few alterations to carry humans versus cargo, Musk noted during the space industry teleconference.
"We're confident of being able to do it at $20 million per seat," Musk said. By contrast, a ride into orbit aboard the Russian Soyuz costs NASA approximately $51 million per person.
NASA's new budget also includes extending the space station's life until 2020 — a prospect welcomed by SpaceX.
"It certainly provides a longer-lasting market for resupply activities," Shotwell said. "On the other hand, I think that we've invested an incredible amount of money in the ISS, and we've forged important political relationships in that process."
For now, SpaceX is fully focused on fulfilling the first part of its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contract, which involves three Dragon flight demonstrations.
"For a $278 million investment on NASA's side, they're getting access to a brand new rocket and a Dragon spacecraft that can shuttle cargo," Shotwell said. "I can't imagine a better value for the dollar."
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