As NASA prepares to retire its shuttle fleet, the space agency is looking to the commercial space industry to develop spacecraft that will carry cargo, and, in the future, people, to the International Space Station. An upcoming test launch of the commercially developed Dragon space capsule is part of that effort.
For this week's historic launch of a commercial spacecraft from the Kennedy Space Center, both the blastoff and the planned splashdown in the Pacific hours later will be equally important.
This test flight marks the first time a commercial spacecraft has ever attempted to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere, which means the capsule will have to withstand scorching temperatures of about 2,000 degrees Celsius.
But it is not just a demonstration of private industry's ability to create safe and reliable spacecraft. It is also the first launch for NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, or COTS, program, which uses NASA funds to spur development of new spacecraft in the commercial sector.
Phil McAlister, NASA's acting director of Commercial Space Flight Development, cautioned reporters at Kennedy Space Center against reading too much into the launch's successes or failures. "I wanted to emphasize that this is a test flight. It is not in any way an indictment for or against the overall program if you have anomalies. We expect anomalies," he said.
The reusable Dragon spacecraft and the Falcon 9 rocket were developed by the California-based company Space Exploration Technologies, commonly known as SpaceX. This week's demonstration will be a first for the Dragon craft and only the second for the Falcon 9 rocket, which successfully blasted off in June, despite SpaceX's own odds that chances for the maiden mission's success were about 70 percent.
Gwynne Shotwell is the president of SpaceX. Speaking alongside McAlister Monday, she said odds are that there will be substantial issues during one of the first three test flights. But, she said, she thinks the upcoming mission likely will be a success. "If I want to have a cloud over my head, I would put the success at the same percentage - 70 percent," Shotwell said.
SpaceX is one of two companies NASA is investing a total of $500 million in through the four-year-old COTS program. NASA describes the program as revolutionary, saying it allows the space agency to turn its attentions toward developing next-generation spacecraft that could travel beyond low-earth-orbit.
Under the COTS program, NASA is essentially the lead investor in the Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket.
Shotwell says this is a public-private partnership. NASA has spent $253 million so far. NASA officials say it is remarkable that a commercially developed spacecraft and rocket are on the launch pad after four years of work.
Shotwell says SpaceX has spent more than $600 million getting to this point. It has met 17 of 22 benchmarks so far, and NASA will pay out another $25 million once SpaceX meets the remaining milestones. And, Shotwell pointed out, if SpaceX goes over budget, it is up to the private company to make up that shortfall - not the government and not taxpayers.
Apart from the COTS funding, NASA has awarded SpaceX a $1.6-billion contract to make 12 resupply trips to the International Space Station or ISS.
"With the decision to extend the life of the International Space Station to 2020 and potentially beyond, and the imminent retirement of the space shuttle, cargo delivery services to the ISS has become more important than ever. So we are definitely looking forward to the day where we will have multiple redundant capabilities for ISS cargo transportation services," McAlister said.
If all goes according to plan for this week's launch, the Dragon spacecraft will separate from the Falcon 9 rocket, orbit the Earth twice and then successfully re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. Ideally, the capsule will land in the Pacific, about 800 kilometers west of Mexico, where it will get scooped up by waiting ships.
The demonstration launch had been set for December 7, but SpaceX decided to postpone it after engineers found signs of cracking in an engine nozzle extension.
Shotwell says, if this first launch is a success, SpaceX might attempt to reach the space station on the second test flight.