NASA and its partners in the International Space Station approved the launch plan during yesterday’s Flight Readiness Review, or FRR. This is the biggest milestone in a six-year program by NASA to use private launch companies to send first supplies and then crew to the ISS.
Asked at a news conference yesterday to evaluate his company’s chances of success, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said, "I think we’ve got a pretty good shot, but I think it’s worth emphasizing that there is a lot that can go wrong on a mission like this, because you’ve got to have the success of the rocket and you’ve got to have the success of the spacecraft." The Falcon 9 rocket has flown successfully to orbit twice before, the Dragon once. But this will be the first test of the Dragon’s new solar panels and its autonomous docking system.
Originally planned as two separate missions, this month’s flight will test Dragon’s ability to do a close "fly under" of the space station from a distance of about 1.5 miles. If all goes well, SpaceX controllers in Hawthorne, Calif., will coordinate with NASA controllers in Houston and the space station crew to bring the Dragon closer to the station in preparation for docking.
If there are no big surprises, on the morning of May 3, the space station crew will grapple the Dragon with the station’s Canadian-supplied robotic arm and guide it the rest of the way to dock with the Earth-facing side of the station’s Harmony node. The spacecraft will then spend 18 days berthed to the station while the crew transfers 1148 pounds of astronaut provisions and hardware to the station, and repacks the Dragon with 1455 pounds of hardware for recovery and refurbishment after the craft undocks and returns for splashdown off the California coast. If the entire mission is a success, it will open the door to at least 12 ISS cargo missions for SpaceX and a $1.6 billion contract from NASA for those deliveries.
Musk said that SpaceX’s biggest challenge in these last two weeks before the launch is the final software testing. "Essentially we have a complete representation of the Dragon’s avionics system on a bench," he said, "and it flies a simulated mission. It’s sort of like a brain-in-a-tub thing. It actually thinks it flew to the space station, and we watch to see what it did. Does it do all the right things on the way to get there? If it doesn’t, then where did it go wrong? And what happens if we unplug certain devices, essentially simulating failure at the worst possible moment?"
Overall, Musk said, SpaceX has spent about $1 billion designing, building, and testing the all-new rocket engines, rockets, and spacecraft to be used in the launch and ISS berthing attempt later this month. Of that, $381 million has come from NASA. (Comparatively, the space shuttle cost about $1.5 billion per launch with development costs factored in.) NASA has been providing seed money to seven companies for development of commercial space transportation technology, but SpaceX is the clear frontrunner, with the only rocket and vehicle ready for launch. Its closest competitor, Orbital Sciences Corporation, plans to launch its first flight test later this year.
"SpaceX wouldn’t have been able to get started without the amazing work that NASA has done in the past," Musk said at the press conference, "and we wouldn’t have gotten this far without the help of NASA, so I’d like to be real clear in expressing my appreciation for that. I’d also express an appreciation to the American public, who are ultimately funding this."
NASA certainly has its fingers crossed for SpaceX’s success, because the agency’s need for a new way to get back and forth from the ISS is more urgent than ever. With the space shuttle’s retirement last year and NASA’s next-gen Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (formerly Orion) still years away from flight, NASA relies on Russian Soyuz rockets to bring crews up and down from the station. Unmanned craft such as the Russian Progress, European Automated Transfer Vehicles, and Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicles can ferry supplies, but no vehicle can currently bring back equipment and scientific experiments—the existing cargo vehicles burn up in the atmosphere after separating from the station. The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft promise to bring a new capability to the station: a cargo craft that can return intact, and the cargo version that will fly first is very similar in design to the planned crew version.
And there’s another reason NASA’s excited about private space, according to Michael Suffredini, NASA’s International Space Station program manager, "NASA needs to . . . help development of the commercial capability to support low Earth orbit both in terms of cargo and humans and other capabilities—robotic servicing, things like that—and NASA needs to start focusing on human exploration beyond low Earth orbit. Those of us who are looking forward to the next step for NASA really are very excited about this next step for the space station."
Michael Belfiore is the author of Rocketeers: How a Visionary Band of Business Leaders, Engineers, and Pilots Is Boldly Privatizing Space, and is a regular contributor to Popular Mechanics.
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