I s this the future of SPACE travel and exploration?
With SpaceX launch, more than cargo is riding on space station mission
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, topped with the
company's Dragon spacecraft, is now three for three after a flawless
launch in the predawn hours Tuesday morning.
Coming after two previous successful test
launches in 2010, Tuesday's historic mission to the International Space
Station marks the first time a commercial company has sent a craft to
dock with the orbiting outpost. If all goes well, this mission marks the
end of the demonstration phase under a $1.6 billion contract the
company has with NASA to resupply the space station.
Tuesday's launch at 3:44 a.m. Eastern
Daylight Time from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, was
the second try for this mission. The first attempt on May 19 ended a
half-second after the engines ignited. A flight-control computer on
board the rocket shut off the engines just before lift-off when sensors
reported too much pressure in one engine's combustion chamber.
Technicians traced the problem to a faulty valve, which they replaced
over the weekend.
Once Dragon reached orbit and extended its
solar arrays Tuesday morning -- a first for the craft -- it was cheers,
hugs, and high-fives at SpaceX's launch control facility at the Cape as
well as at mission control at the company's headquarters in Hawthorne,
Calif. Later, sensors crucial to the craft's navigation to and around
the space station were exposed to space for the first time and were
functioning as designed.
"Anything could have gone wrong, but
everything went right," said Elon Musk, SpaceX's founder and chief
designer, referring to the solar-panel deployment during a post-launch
press briefing. "There is so much hope riding on that rocket."
The Falcon 9 is the company's bread and
butter. Even before Tuesday's launch, SpaceX had about $4 billion worth
of launch contracts in hand through 2017. Sixty percent of the value of
those contracts comes from customers other than NASA. The Falcon
9/Dragon package also serves as the foundation for the company's
ambitions to contract with NASA to ferry crews to and from the space
When the initial stages of the mission came
off without a hitch, "people saw their handiwork in space operating as
it should," Mr. Musk said, and the emotions flowed. "For us it's like
winning the Super Bowl."
The experienced hands at NASA were just as impressed with the performance as the young Turks they mentored.
"I've had the pleasure of working down here
at the Cape with a lot of fantastic teams that have put together a lot
of really quality rockets and launched a lot of amazing things. There is
none better than this team," says William Gerstenmaier, NASA's
associate administrator for human exploration and operations, noting the
quick recovery from Saturday's launch glitch.
The Dragon spacecraft is carrying just over
1,000 pounds of cargo to the station -- items ranging from rations and
crew clothing to ice bricks for experiment samples and cargo bags to be
used on later missions. And in Dragon's case, what goes up can come
down. It's the only resupply craft -- current or planned -- that can
bring cargo back to Earth as well.
The International Space Station's crew
watched the launch, which took place as the station passed 249 miles
above the North Atlantic east of St. Johns, Newfoundland. With Dragon
now safely on orbit, with all systems working as planned, SpaceX is
preparing for a series of tests aimed at showing that the autonomous
craft can operate safely in the space station's vicinity.
Currently the craft's elliptical orbit brings
it to within 37 miles below the station. Throughout the day Tuesday,
the craft will conduct rendezvous-abort maneuvers, show it can drift
freely with thrusters disabled, and demonstrate its ability to use
Global Positioning System satellites for navigation. Meanwhile,
controllers will be checking out the craft's navigation sensors,
including a radar-like laser system, known as lidar, the craft will use
to gauge its distance from the space station.
On Wednesday, the craft is slated to adjust
its altitude so that by Thursday it will swing to within 1.5 miles below
the station. The craft will undergo additional tests of its GPS
navigation system, and the crew aboard the space station will switch on a
strobe light on Dragon to confirm the craft is sending and receiving
information from a manual control box on the station.
Also on Thursday and into Friday, the craft
is slated to fly around the station at a distance of four to six miles,
with a carefully choreographed rendezvous and docking slated for Friday.
If all goes well, the station crew will open the craft's hatch on Saturday.
Each of the steps needed to get to that point isn't trivial, Mr. Gerstenmaier suggests.
"Things are moving in the right direction,"
he says. But "there are still lots of activities that will occur over
the next days that will really stretch the SpaceX team and also stretch
the NASA team a little bit as we work together to get to the space
station and deliver some demonstration cargo."
Still, the company's hardware has cleared a critical milestone.
"I would really count today as a success, no matter what happens during the rest of the mission," Musk says.
To his Twitter followers he added: "Feels like a giant weight just came off my back :)"
With NASA out of the picture for the foreseeable future are private companies the future of space travel?
Will their be enough of an incentive for them to do exploration as well?
See Votes by State