Space Exploration Technologies, better known as SpaceX, has successfully launched its Dragon space capsule to the International Space Station (ISS), completing the first of 12 resupply missions under its $1.6 billion contract with NASA. Dragon delivered replacement parts for the space station, dozens of scientific experiments, and chocolate ice cream to the astronauts;it and will remain berthed at the ISS until October 28, when it returns more hardware and experiments back to Earth.
Dragon launched on Sunday aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, along with a communications satellite. The launch did not go quite as planned, with two engine malfunctions, one in the first stage and one in the second stage; but the rocket’s computer was able to correct for the problem by shutting down the malfunctioning engines and computing a new flight path in real time. This allowed Dragon to reach the ISS, and the communications satellite should be able to reach its object with some additional boosting. All in all, it’s not a huge problem; even the Saturn V’s experienced similar engine failures on two launches.
This is an important milestone for both NASA and the private space industry. Having the Falcon 9/Dragon launch capability goes a long way toward America’s ability to keep the ISS supplied and toward closing the gap in our launch capabilities. If all continues to go well, SpaceX may be able to launch the crewed version of Dragon, DragonRider, as soon as 2015, allowing the United States to begin sending humans into space again. Better yet, DragonRider will be able to carry more astronauts at a lower cost than a Russian Soyuz launch.
For all the logistical and funding difficulties NASA has had lately, I think things will begin to look very different in just a few years. Welcome to the Future.