At 3:44am this past Tuesday, a rocket blasted off from Cape Caneveral, Florida on a historic mission to demonstrate the ability of a commercially developed and operated transportation system to safely deliver cargo to the International Space Station. This flight is only the third flight of the Falcon 9 rocket, developed by Elon Musk’s startup Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), and the second flight of their Dragon capsule, so the tension in the atmosphere at SpaceX was understandable. The first launch attempt, last Saturday morning, was scrubbed due to a leaky check valve in the central engine’s turbopump, which was fortunately caught by the Falcon 9’s flight computer, enabling a safe abort of the engines with only half a second to spare before the planned liftoff. SpaceX was able to diagnose and repair the problem over the weekend, and was ready to go again at the next launch window, on Tuesday morning. Fortunately, the Falcon 9 delivered a flawless performance, lifting the Dragon capsule safely to orbit a little over nine minutes after liftoff. I had literally been keeping my fingers and toes crossed for the whole flight while watching things from home (my past experience in rocket testing has made me somewhat superstitious). I choked up at the reaction of the SpaceX team when the Dragon’s solar panels finally deployed. If you need some inspiration, and haven’t seen the flight footage, I’d strongly suggest watching the unedited SpaceX broadcast (launch starts at ~44:40 mark).
While those initial thrilling moments were an excellent start to a historic mission which is the culmination of nearly six years of hard work at SpaceX and NASA, the most historic portion of this mission is about to begin tomorrow morning. Over the past two days since the launch, the Dragon capsule has been slowly catching up with the space station, while performing several tests to demonstrate to NASA the capsule’s ability to safely operate near the station. Earlier this morning, the Dragon performed a maneuver that allowed it to pass only 2.5km below the station, where the picture at the beginning of this post was taken by an astronaut on board the ISS (Don Pettit, the one who will be operating the robot arm for tomorrow’s “berthing” operation). This final test verified the ability of ISS crewmembers to send commands to the Dragon, and to test the inter-vehicle communication system. With the completion of today’s tests, SpaceX has actually fulfilled all the requirements they had originally planned for their second Dragon flight. However, over the past year, SpaceX has worked with NASA to gain permission to combine the second Dragon flight with the third and final Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration flight, where the Dragon capsule will ultimately berth with the station (using its robotic arm, controlled by astronauts on-board), cargo will be unloaded from inside the Dragon capsule, and a small amount of non-critical cargo will be loaded back into Dragon for the return flight. It is this final set of operations, which will start in the early morning hours tomorrow (around 7:30am on the east coast) and end with the hatch to the ISS being opened early Saturday morning, which will be the truly historic part of this mission—marking the beginning of service of the world’s first commercial space cargo delivery vehicle, completing SpaceX’s part in the COTS development program, and marking SpaceX’s transition into operational service as part of the Commercial Resupply Services program which it won flight contracts from at the end of 2008.
The advent of commercial orbital cargo delivery capabilities by has been over a decade in the making. SpaceX itself was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, using money made from the sale of his previous startup, Paypal to Ebay. Elon was and is still a firm believer in the importance of making mankind a “multiplanetary species”, and had originally started SpaceX to design and launch a small greenhouse to Mars, as a way to try and bolster public support for funding a vigorous Mars exploration program. However, after seeing how expensive US space launch was at the time (it has gotten far worse since then), and how hard it was to work with Russian launchers, he decided to start his own rocket company to try and develop the world’s most affordable launch vehicle, the Falcon 1. Ten years later, three launch failures, and now five consecutive successful launches later, Elon’s team is making progress towards their goals. Even if this mission continues as successfully as it has to-date, SpaceX still has a while to go before they are “out of the woods”, but their progress to-date is heartening for any supporter of commercial space.
At about the same time Elon was starting SpaceX, NASA had begun investigating the possibility of using commercial companies to provide “Alternative Access to the Station”. While that program died out in the trade-study phase, the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003 and the subsequent Columbia Accident Investigation Board provided the impetus that led to President George W. Bush’s January 2004 announcement of a “Vision for Space Exploration”, which explicitly called for a public-private partnership to transition space station crew and cargo logistics to commercial operators. NASA leadership had come to realize that without politically unrealistic budget increases, it would be impossible for them to simultaneously provide logistics support to the station in the traditional NASA owned-and-operated way while also developing the systems they would need to resume space exploration beyond earth’s orbit. I was at a conference in 2005 where a senior NASA official bluntly stated that NASA needed commercial crew if it was to have any chance of fulfilling its mission under the new vision. While the overall execution of Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration was hopelessly botched under the control of former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, he did start the COTS program to begin transitioning routine space station logistics to commercial companies (most military satellites over the past 20 years have already been launched on existing commercially-developed launch vehicles). While the original intent of the vision had been for commercial cargo and crew systems to be developed more or less in parallel, Administrator Griffin pushed for doing the cargo systems first, to demonstrate commercial capabilities, before even starting on commercial crew development. Some in the industry have suggested that this may have been motivated by Griffin’s desire to protect the Ares-I launch vehicle and Orion capsule, which Griffin had personally begun advocating even before the start of his administration at NASA, from competition by significantly lower-cost commercial vehicles. While commercial cargo delivery has enjoyed fairly universal support at NASA and Congress, commercial crew delivery has been unfortunately much more controversial, with opponents in Congress regularly underfunding the development of commercial crew capabilities while simultaneously complaining about having to rely on Russian providers for US astronaut’s access to the space station that we spent over $60 billion dollars building. Recently, opponents of commercial crew development have even enlisted the voices of several of the early Apollo astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, and Eugene Cernan. In a TV interview a few months ago, the reporter asked Musk what he thought of their opposition, and you could tell that Musk was personally hurt pretty bad to have men who he still regards as heroes publicly opposing him in that manner. Hopefully as time goes on, and especially as missions such as this one continue to prove the growing capability of commercial companies such as SpaceX, more sanity can prevail in the policy and funding discussions regarding commercial crew.
Ultimately, the most exciting thing about this week’s mission is the demonstration that we’re finally at the point with spaceflight that commercial companies can do what once only lavishly-funded government programs could accomplish. This is the kind of story that gives one hope about the US’s ability to retain its lead in space. While I won’t be surprised if in the coming years, commercial companies in other countries follow-suit, there’s something uniquely crazy and wonderful about our country that makes me not surprised that the first time a commercial company will deliver cargo to a space station it is in a vehicle developed by a US company with an immigrant running it.
Jonathan Goff runs Altius Space Machines, a Colorado-based space robotics company. Jonathan is also the proprietor of the Selenian Boondocks space technology and policy blog.