The Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, is making final preparations for the launch of its Falcon 9 rocket and new Dragon space capsule on what could be a groundbreaking test flight for the entire commercial spaceflight industry.
It will be the fastest and ‘most cheapest’ way to get into space, and it appears ready to launch on Wednesday. The launch of a Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled for 9 a.m., and engineers have used some novel and inexpensive approaches to getting the rocket prepared for flight.
If successful, the flight will mark the first time a private company has launched and re-entered a spacecraft from low-Earth orbit. This task has only been successfully accomplished in the past by six nations or government agencies – the U.S., Russia, China, Japan, India and the European Space Agency.
“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,” he added.
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.
“We’ve got some trouble with a rocket nozzle,” said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell. At the launch pad where the Falcon 9 rocket stands poised to make history, engineers have been examining some cracks in a rocket nozzle, which is a bell-shaped part at the base where the flame comes out.
“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.”
Last month SpaceX, which is based in California and employs more than 1,000 people, became the first commercial operator to receive a licence from the US Federal Aviation Administration allowing an orbiting spacecraft to return to Earth.
NASA is encouraging private companies to venture into space and wants them to bring supplies to the International Space Station after the space shuttles are retired from service next year.
“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.
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.
“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).”
Commercial spaceflight could be cheaper and faster, but it could also be more risky. SpaceX officials said they’re not shy about saying the new Falcon 9 rocket, launching an unmanned capsule that could one day carry astronauts, has a 30 percent chance of some serious problem.
“It’s hard to overstate the importance,” Bretton 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.” [SpaceXvia The Telegraph (UK) and Space]