This morning’s launch of the unmanned rocket Falcon 9 and its capsule Dragon — conducted through a partnership between Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and NASA — to the International Space Station (ISS) marks a new era for opportunity among private companies in space development, as flights to the space station were formerly a government-only affair.
The Falcon-Dragon successfully lifted off at 3:44 am ET from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The Dragon separated from the Falcon and began undergoing a series of checks to make sure it can dock at ISS later this week. If it passes necessary sensor, control, and equipment tests, the capsule will stay at the space station for a few weeks before being loaded with return cargo and sent earthward to splash down near Southern California.
As the first non-government launch to the space station, the Falcon-Dragon is also the first private craft to take the baton from NASA’s retired space shuttle program, which had carried supplies and personnel to ISS until the summer of 2011. Since then, ISS personnel have had to hitch rides with Russian spacecraft, which — along with European and Japanese ships — also bring supplies. But those craft can’t carry back space station experiments and retired equipment as the space shuttle could.
Nineteen feet tall and 12 feet across, the Dragon is roomy enough to fulfill that function. If the test is successful, SpaceX will make a minimum of 12 cargo flights to the space station under a contract with NASA, which has contributed $381 million to SpaceX space transportation development. Besides carrying cargo, the flights will provide testing for the possible later transport of astronauts, which could happen as soon as 2015 by many accounts.
“We’re at a similar inflection point for space as in the 1990s when the Internet was opened up to ordinary people. I hope and believe that this mission will be historic,” said SpaceX leader Elon Musk of the launch.
Prior to this launch, SpaceX became the first commercial company to shoot a spacecraft into low-Earth orbit and recover it whole in 2010.
SpaceX is one of several private companies jockeying for NASA contracts. Already NASA has reportedly distributed a total of about $500 million in seed money to SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and Blue Origin to develop new space systems capable of transporting cargo and crew to ISS. Boeing just completed a second parachute drop test for its crew transport spacecraft earlier this month, while Sierra Nevada is about to start tests of its Dream Chaser space vehicle. Another company, Orbital Sciences, has a separate contract under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to jointly develop a new cargo delivery system to ISS. Orbital’s first delivery mission is scheduled for early 2013.