CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – This week, all eyes will be on one private spaceflight company.
California's Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, is making final preparations for the launch of its Falcon 9 rocket and new Dragon space capsule set for launch Wednesday morning on what could be a groundbreaking test flight for the entire commercial spaceflight industry. Liftoff is set for Wednesday from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
If successful, the flight will mark the first time a private company has launched and re-entered a spacecraft from low-Earth orbit.
"It's a milestone on the path to realizing the first commercial human spaceflight capability," Bretton Alexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, told SPACE.com. "It's historic in that it's the beginning of a paradigm shift from a government human spaceflight architecture to one that opens up human spaceflight to the private sector."
The planned launch has been delayed from Tuesday due to cracks in the Falcon 9's second-stage rocket engine nozzle. Engineers are working to investigate the problem and hope to have it resolved in time for a possible Wednesday or Thursday Dragon launch attempt, NASA and SpaceX officials have said.
"I think it will be good not only for Space X, but for all of the newer commercial space companies," said former NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao, who served on the White House committee that reviewed NASA's space exploration plans for the Obama administration. "Right or wrong, many people tend to think of all of the relatively new players as one group. So, a success or a failure affects everyone."
Partnering with NASA
The test will also be the first mission by any company under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which is designed to foster the development of private vehicles with the ability to carry cargo -- and eventually crew -- to the International Space Station. [INFOGRAPHIC: Inside Look at SpaceX's Dragon Capsule]
"If they're successful, it will be a huge step forward and a feather in the cap of SpaceX," said Roger Launius, senior curator in the division of space history at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. "If it's successful, we'll be that much farther down the road toward developing a new launcher that has potential to carry cargo to the station, and maybe even crews at some point."
SpaceX already has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to provide cargo flights to the space station using the company's Dragon capsule.
The hope is that commercial providers such as SpaceX will help fill the gap created when NASA stops flying space shuttle missions next year. Until private spaceships are available, NASA will have to rely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to transport astronauts to space.
SpaceX plans to fly at least 12 unmanned missions to ferry supplies to the International Space Station. And, while the Dragon capsule is not yet man-rated to carry human passengers into space, the company ultimately aims to win a contract to fly astronauts to the station as well.
"Successful recovery of Dragon would bode very well for future astronaut transport," SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who made his fortune as co-founder of PayPal, told SPACE.com in an e-mail. "Once shuttle retires, Dragon will be the only spacecraft [capable] of returning humans to Earth apart from Soyuz. Since a launch escape system is not needed after ascent, in principle Dragon could very easily be converted to a lifeboat with more than twice the capacity of Soyuz (seven in our case vs. three for Soyuz)."
Building a launch escape system -- a device that would enable astronauts to jettison from the rocket if an emergency were to occur during liftoff -- is one of the main challenges in man-rating Dragon to carry humans. [Gallery: Photos of the Dragon Space Capsule]
Recently, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees commercial space transportation, awarded SpaceX the first-ever commercial license to re-enter spaceships from Earth orbit.
"The FAA license itself is a small milestone, but it's one more important and necessary step to really changing the way human spaceflight is done," Alexander said.
Still, with commercial spaceflight still very much in its infancy, SpaceX's upcoming test demonstration has more than just an unmanned capsule riding on its rocket.
"It's hard to overstate the importance," Alexander said. "But, the reality is that it's a test program, and there are always issues with test programs. One would expect issues to crop up, but because it's the beginning of the industry, this is incredibly important."
In June, SpaceX conducted a successful flight test of Falcon 9 with a more simplified version of the Dragon spacecraft on board. The flight went off largely without a hitch, but Alexander cautioned that expectations for any program in its test stage should be controlled.
"There's an expectation that you're going to have issues, and when it goes incredibly well, it's fantastic," he explained. "But if you look back at the history of government activities even, all previous space programs have had issues -- it's to be expected."
"Let's remember, first flights of most rockets fail," Launius said. "If SpaceX is not successful, it's simply an indication that they're following a well worn path of previous design efforts. It doesn't mean that this is the wrong strategy, it just means there's more work to do."
Some spaceflight experts, however, see dire political implications -- specifically for NASA's plan to rely on commercial spaceships for astronaut transportation after the space shuttle fleet is retired next year.
"In the short term, it undermines whatever support there is for a commercial approach to human spaceflight, at least by the government," said space policy expert Roger Handberg, political science professor at the University of Central Florida.
A failure could also hit NASA hard as well, Handberg told SPACE.com. With the space shuttle retiring next and the previous moon-oriented Constellation space exploration plan cancelled, it is not a given that Congress would support new funding into the agency's spaceflight future if its commercial investments fail, he added.
In fact, SpaceX's prelaunch activities hit a few snags during engine tests Friday and Saturday, less than a week before the scheduled launch. Two attempts at so-called static fire tests were aborted on Friday and Saturday before a third finally went smoothly.
The first test failed because one of the Falcon 9's engines experienced elevated chamber pressure, while the second was aborted due to low pressure in the gas generator of one of the rocket's engines.
After making adjustments, the company was able to complete a full-duration static fire test later that morning.
"I think there is a tendency to treat each mission as make or break when a new company like SpaceX joins the field, but no one flight is that important," Musk said. "Most of the successful launch vehicles experience a failure in one of their first three flights before going on to be very successful. These are test flights, and so the information that we gain from them is far more important than whether or not we meet all of our mission objectives."
Yet, if Tuesday's test flight is deemed a success, it will undoubtedly be a historic benchmark that paves the way for the future of commercial spaceflight, experts said.
"This would represent an important milestone in the history of space, heralding the dawn of a new era where private companies can now bring back spacecraft from orbit," Musk said.
And perhaps that time cannot come soon enough. With the retirement of NASA's space shuttle fleet close on the horizon, the stakes are raised for who and what will provide the follow-on spaceflight capability after the shuttle era comes to an end.
And test flights aren't the only challenges the burgeoning industry must face: Political factors loom as well. A NASA authorization bill recently passed by Congress allocates money for private spaceflight, but the bill is still waiting for appropriations from Congress.
"The gap in human spaceflight is now entirely in the hands of Congress and what they do with appropriations," Alexander said. "The NASA authorization bill that was passed recognized the importance of this and made commercial crew primary, but things are still up in the air."
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