This time, Dragon means business

  • Article by: THE ECONOMIST
  • Updated: October 14, 2012 - 4:10 PM

The first commercial launch to the International Space Station is a success.

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This image from NASA-TV shows the capture of the Dragon capsule by a robot arm on the International Space Station as they passed over the South Atlantic Ocean early Wednesday Oct. 10, 2012.

Photo: Uncredited, Associated Press - Ap

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It is hard to think of a better example of how routine space flight has become than the cargo missions that bring supplies to the International Space Station.

But the one that docked on Wednesday is special for two reasons: it included a delivery of ice cream, a rare treat for the astronauts exiled there; and it is the first cargo flight to the station undertaken by a commercial company.

Its success is a vindication of the decision by NASA to delegate such missions to the private sector.

SpaceX, which built the Dragon spacecraft that carried the cargo (as well as the Falcon 9 rocket that blasted it into orbit), has been to the space station before. In May, a demonstration flight saw another Dragon dock successfully with the station.

That flight was the last of a series of technical hurdles that SpaceX had to jump in order to persuade NASA to sign a $1.6 billion contract for cargo trips. Eleven more are planned.

But although the Dragon successfully made it to the space station, the mission was far from flawless. One of the Falcon's nine engines failed about a minute into its flight, forcing the rocket to continue into orbit on its remaining eight motors.

SpaceX was quick to make the point that the ability to carry on despite an engine failure demonstrates a big advantage of multi-engined rockets like the Falcon.

Had the mission been using almost any other type of rocket, its payload would now be at the bottom of the Atlantic. But although the Dragon was unaffected, the engine problem left a small communications satellite that was along for the ride as a secondary payload unable to reach its proper orbit.

SpaceX is not the only firm in the private-cargo business. Orbital Sciences, best known for making satellites, hopes to carry out a much-delayed test of its Antares rocket later this year. There is talk of a test flight to the space station, using its Cygnus spacecraft, in 2013. If Orbital Sciences can prove that its vehicles work, NASA will pay it $1.9 billion to run eight cargo flights.

Nor are NASA's ambitions for private space firms limited to hauling freight. Following the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, America now relies on Russia's Soyuz system to ferry its astronauts to and from the space station. But the Dragon was designed from the start to take passengers, and, under a separate deal called the Commercial Crew Development, SpaceX is in the running for a contract to fly people to the station.

If the Falcon and the Dragon can pass another set of technical tests, the company could start flying astronauts by 2017. Two other firms -- the Sierra Nevada Corp., a conglomerate that dabbles in satellites, energy and medicine, and aerospace giant Boeing Co. -- hope to fly similar missions.

In theory, by delegating to the private sector the humdrum business of ferrying food and astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit, NASA could free up cash to do other, more difficult things, including sending people to nearby asteroids by 2025, and on to Mars by the 2030s.

However, many space-watchers are skeptical about whether such missions will ever happen, given the U.S. government's squeezed budgets.

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