Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Dragon Touches The Sky

Earlier this week, NASA announced that the last two shuttle missions, to be flown on Discovery and Endeavour, have been delayed until next year. But in the meantime, a historic first has occurred: a private company -- Space Exploration Technologies, Inc. or SpaceX -- has built, launched, and recovered a spacecraft from Earth orbit. The first Dragon spacecraft was placed into low Earth orbit yesterday by a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle, which lifted off from Cape Canaveral.

The first stage of the Falcon launcher was recovered from the Atlantic, and the Dragon spacecraft made several orbits before it re-entered the atmosphere and splashed down safely in the Pacific.

Previously, spacecraft development and launch were only within reach of national or supra-national entities -- Russia, the United States, China, Japan, India, and the European Union. Now SpaceX has joined this exclusive club, the first corporation to do so.

Initial plans are to use the Dragon vehicle in cargo-carrier configuration to ferry supplies to the International Space Station to fulfill the terms of the resupply contract that NASA has awarded to SpaceX. But cargo resupply is a stepping stone -- the ultimate goal is to build a human-rated version of Dragon which will carry up to seven astronauts.

With the uncertainty in the Constellation program and in the development of the Orion crew vehicle, it is likely that Dragon will be the de facto next generation spacecraft.

Although Dragon's stated purpose is to carry astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station, other missions for which the Orion was being considered may be possible with Dragon -- lunar orbit, lunar landing (with a lander to be developed), asteroid rendezvous, and others as needs are identified.

A movie showing a simulated rendezvous and docking with the ISS provides a window into the current thinking of SpaceX in terms of the bread-and-butter of being a service provider. However, it is not outside the realm of possibility that some variant of the Heinleinian vision of The Man Who Sold The Moon may still come true.

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