Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is scheduled to launch a privately-developed-and-operated rocket from Cape Canaveral on May 7 to carry a commercial payload up to the International Space Station. If successful, SpaceX will mark the debut of a sixth mode of freight transportation, the next generation of air cargo activity.
SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., have been contracted by NASA to haul 20 tonnes of cargo to the Space Station through 2016. SpaceX will make 12 flights with its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft, while Orbital’s Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft will undertake eight flights.
SpaceX completed a maiden flight in December 2010 and persuaded NASA that it could combine its second and third demonstration flights in a single mission that would include the Dragon berthing with the ISS. Plans to launch in February, then at the end of April, were delayed by modifications to command software. Dragon will be carrying a 521-kilogram payload of food, other consumables and non-critical equipment.
Elon Musk, chief executive and chief designer for SpaceX, told a media conference: “This is a test flight, and we may not succeed in getting all the way to the space station. I think we’ve got a pretty good shot, but it’s important to acknowledge that a lot can go wrong.”
The U.S. government decided several years back that “routine” transportation to low-Earth orbit — tasks such as supplying ISS and launching satellites — should be contracted out. This meant the space shuttle program, with its increasingly high maintenance cost, could be retired, and NASA could move on to develop the systems needed for exploring, and perhaps later mining, Mars and the asteroid belt.
A number of other private concerns are in the long-term mix to fly people and cargo into space. XCOR Aerospace and Virgin Galactic were among seven companies chosen by NASA in August 2011 to receive two years of financial support for further research into delivering cargo, initially to the edge of space, on reusable vehicles. NASA’s aim is to be able to draw from a wider pool of companies for payload integration and flight services. The seven firms are sharing $10 million of seed funding via the Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research Flight Opportunities program.
“This is currently a very under-served market with long lead times and no guarantee of payload recovery on conventional rockets,” XCOR COO Andrew Nelson told Air Cargo World. “NASA is jump-starting a revolution in the commercial space industry.”
For the SpaceX launch countdown, visit: www.nasa.gov/offices/c3po/home/index.html.