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Dragon splashdown
SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft descends under parachutes to a splashdown in the Pacific a few hours after its launch from Cape Canaveral. (credit: SpaceX)

2010: the year commercial human spaceflight made contact

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For a number of years some companies and space advocates have pushed for NASA to turn to the private sector transportation of astronauts to and from low Earth orbit. By doing so, they argued, NASA could help open up a new commercial space market while allowing the agency to focus on cutting-edge work. Most, though, greeted those arguments with skepticism, if not outright opposition: it was hard to believe that companies could take on the challenging task of safely taking people to orbit and back.

Prior to the launch, both SpaceX and NASA officials had emphasized that the launch was a test flight, and that success was far from certain.

This year, though, there has been a major shift. It started in February, when the Obama Administration made the development of commercial crew capabilities one of the centerpieces of its 2011 budget proposal and overall new vision for NASA’s space exploration efforts. That proposal became a lightning rod for criticism of the overall proposal, yet it survived the long Congressional debate and was included in the NASA authorization bill that the president signed into law in October. During that time several major aerospace companies, such as Boeing and United Launch Alliance, expressed an interest in developing systems to serve that market, blunting claims that NASA would have to rely on untried companies. However, perhaps the biggest breakthrough came last week, with the successful test flight of a privately-developed spacecraft that could, in a few years’ time, also be carrying people into orbit.

Flight of the Dragon

Strictly speaking, Wednesday’s launch of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft on the company’s second Falcon 9 rocket was not a test of a commercial crew transportation system. Instead, the launch was the first of three test flights of a cargo spacecraft under the company’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement with NASA. Dragon, carrying no payload, would go into orbit, perform some tests, and splash down in the Pacific Ocean a few hours later.

First, though, the Dragon had to get off the ground. The launch had been scheduled for Tuesday, but at a press briefing a day before, SpaceX announced that the launch would be delayed because cracks had been found in the nozzle of the Falcon 9’s single second-stage engine. Fixing the problem would push the launch back until at least Thursday; perhaps Friday or Saturday if the nozzle had to be replaced.

However, the company found a way to speed up the process. The cracks were in a nozzle extension, made of a niobium alloy, designed to improve the efficiency of the Merlin rocket engine in vacuum. However, SpaceX officials said the additional performance the extension provided wasn’t required for this mission. So, a technician went into the second stage and simply trimmed away the lower portion of the extension, where the cracks were located. The rocket was then declared ready to fly on Wednesday.

Prior to the launch, both SpaceX and NASA officials had emphasized that the launch was a test flight, and that success was far from certain. “History would say that we going to have a substantial issue in one of the first couple or three flights,” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said at the prelaunch press conference. Asked to give the odds of success, she said it was at least 70 percent, similar to the odds that SpaceX founder Elon Musk gave in some other pre-launch interviews.

“This is a test flight,” Phil McAlister, acting director of NASA’s commercial space flight development program, said at the same press conference. “It is not in any way an indictment for or against the overall program if you have anomalies. We expect anomalies, and the purpose of the test flight is to learn.”

Come Wednesday morning, the Falcon 9 was on the pad ready to fly. The initial launch attempt, a little after 9 am, was halted because of a minor technical glitch, and the launch was reset for 10:43 am. This time there were no problems with the final countdown, and the Falcon 9 soared into the clear, cold Florida skies. The launch appeared to go smoothly, including the performance of the second stage and its trimmed nozzle.

While anyone in the vicinity of Cape Canaveral could see the initial stage of Dragon’s mission by watching the launch, the later stages of the mission unfolded out of view, as Dragon entered orbit. The 21st century solution to keeping track of the mission was to follow SpaceX on Twitter, where the company posted brief updates about the performance of the spacecraft. “Dragon is in orbit, communicating with TDRSS, performing maneuvers, operations nominal,” read one sample update.

“I wish I was more articulate,” Musk said at one point in the post-mission press conference, “but it’s hard to be articulate when your mind’s blown.”

After a few hours, it was time to return home. Up until that point Dragon had demonstrated the ability to carry cargo into space, but now it had to demonstrate something even harder: successfully return to Earth, essential if SpaceX wants to use the spacecraft for crew transportation as well. Without live coverage people hung on the company’s Twitter updates, which became more excited as the spacecraft approached splashdown: “De-orbit burn complete!” “drogue chutes deployed.” “THREE MAIN PARACHUTES DEPLOYED!!!!” “SPLASHDOWN!!!”

Dragon not only made it back to Earth, it landed virtually right on target, in the middle of the designated recovery area in the Pacific Ocean about 800 kilometers off the coast of Mexico. At the post-mission press conference later Wednesday, Musk noted that the mission went off flawlessly, with no need to rely on redundant or backup systems. “This has really been better than I expected,” he said. “It’s actually almost too good.” (It wasn’t entirely perfect, though: Musk said that SpaceX was unable to recover the Falcon 9’s first stage from the waters off Cape Canaveral, as hoped, although that was not a strict mission requirement.)

Musk was clearly stunned by how well the mission went, describing his state as “semi-shock” as he rambled on about the mission’s accomplishments in almost a stream-of-consciousness format. “I wish I was more articulate,” he said at one point, “but it’s hard to be articulate when your mind’s blown.”

Making the case for commercial crew

The Dragon that flew last week was a prototype for a version designed to carry only cargo to the International Space Station. However, SpaceX designed the spacecraft, and its Falcon 9 launcher, from the beginning to also be able to carry crew with a minimum of upgrades. “The vehicle you saw today could easily transport people,” Musk said. “If there had been people sitting in the Dragon capsule today, they would have had a very nice ride.”

SpaceX, though, does envision upgrades to the Dragon to be able to support crewed missions, including the development of a launch escape system to allow the Dragon to escape the Falcon 9 in the event of a launch failure, as well as upgrades to the capsule’s life support system. Although previous SpaceX animations have shown a crewed Dragon splashing down in the ocean as in last week’s test, Musk said that he now expects upgrades to permit a capsule to touch down on land, extending landing legs and using thrusters for a soft landing. “Kind of like when Eagle landed on the Moon,” he explained. “You can literally land on a helipad.”

The successful test flight now puts SpaceX in the lead among those companies interested in performing commercial crew transportation. “My opinion, my assessment, is that SpaceX would be the most rapid path to an American crew transportation system,” Musk said. “If we had people on this flight, we would have taken them to orbit and returned them to Earth safely.”

Musk even appeared to be taking aim at Orion, the NASA crew spacecraft being built by Lockheed Martin. While Orion was originally targeted for cancellation by the Obama Administration, along with the rest of Constellation, in its budget proposal, Orion was saved as the “Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle” in the NASA authorization bill. The first flight of Orion, though, would be no sooner than 2013, assuming NASA signs off on a proposal by Lockheed Martin to perform an uncrewed test flight on a Delta 4 Heavy rocket, as Orion’s original launch vehicle, the Ares 1, did not survive this year’s NASA debate.

“It’s a milestone on the path to realizing the first commercial human spaceflight capability,” said Brett Alexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

“Dragon has arguably more capability than Orion,” Musk claimed. The two vehicles have approximately the same pressurized volume, while Dragon has a heat shield that Musk claimed could handle the reentry velocities of a spacecraft returning from Mars. “Basically, anything Orion can do Dragon can do,” he said, adding that he hopes that NASA would consider Dragon for any missions it might plan using Orion.

Regardless of Dragon’s capabilities vis-à-vis Orion, commercial spaceflight supporters seized on the successful flight as evidence that private firms can develop vehicles capable of crewed missions, at arguably a fraction of the cost of traditional government-developed vehicles. “It’s a milestone on the path to realizing the first commercial human spaceflight capability,” said Brett Alexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, in a statement. “It’s historic in that it’s the beginning of a paradigm shift from a government human spaceflight architecture to one that opens up human spaceflight to the private sector.”

While SpaceX received plenty of praise, the company, and the overall concept of commercial human orbital spaceflight, will continue to receive plenty of scrutiny in the months and years to come. Congressman Ralph Hall (R-TX), selected last week by fellow House Republicans to be the chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee in the next Congress, remained skeptical of the ability of private companies to carry out such missions.

“If you’re really a conservative you long for the day when anybody… can launch their own missiles and not have NASA, the government, do it. But that day’s not yet,” he told Dallas radio station KERA on Friday. “It’s a time when you still need government backing and sure tax money to see that you have successful launches and safe launches.” Hall also told the Dallas Morning News that he would ask Musk to testify at a future committee hearing.

Others question just how “commercial” such systems could really be. “I think one of the worst things that happened in managing this revolutionary proposal with respect to human spaceflight is to call the transportation service ‘commercial,’” John Logsdon, the former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said in a space policy forum earlier this month hosted by the Marshall Institute. “There is no obvious market” right now for crewed flights beyond NASA’s needs, he claimed, and allowing that question to dominate the policy debate “is one of the policy failures of the last year.”

While questions of business viability remain, last week’s test may help put to rest questions about the ability of commercial ventures to develop such systems from a technical standpoint: after all, if a relatively inexperienced company like SpaceX can successfully develop such a system, it makes it all the more likely that more experienced companies also interested in this market can do so as well. Should commercial crew transportation systems enter service in the next several years, people may look back and see 2010 as a tipping point that made those systems possible, thanks to a shift in policy, renewed business interest, and one flight of a Dragon.