At 3:44 a.m. today, a SpaceEx Falcon 9 rocket carried their Dragon space capsule into earth orbit, bound for rendezvous with International Space Station. The launch represents the first attempt for a non-NASA American spacecraft to re-supply ISS since the close of the Space Shuttle Program ten months ago. The 180-foot tall, 367 ton rocket flawlessly pushed up to a 210-mile altitude where on Thursday it will meet ISS, if all systems continue to perform as expected. SpaceX has been steadily working towards developing a safe and affordable launch vehicle system since 2002.
Although many people, including many revered veterans of America’s space program, are doubtful that an independent organization like SpaceX can develop launch capability, while just the beginning of the mission, this launch will hopefully give skeptics more data with which they might form a more reasoned opinion.
SpaceX actually is not the first independent contractor to attempt to provide launch services. The French corporation Arianespace has been providing launch services for corporate and national clients worldwide, since 1980. One of their clients, the European Space Agency, a partner of the ISS program, has been re-supplying ISS with their 6-ton freight capacity Automated Transfer Vehicle since 2008. Swiss-owned SeaLaunch, with 32 launches under its belt has been providing heavy-lift launch and recovery services since 1999. Its partners and sub-contractors include the Russian Energia corporation and the American Boeing Commercial Space Company, using the Ukrainian-built Zenit rocket. To say “It’s not rocket science” would carry the sentiment too far but the use of successful long-range rocket technology has been known for 70 years, so it’s not surprising that SpaceX has tackled the challenge or has a good chance to be successful at providing safe and low-cost space access outside of NASA.
John Holdren, assistant to the President for Space and Technology sets the context of SpaceX’s efforts clearly in his congratulatory message to SpaceX this morning:
"Congratulations to the teams at SpaceX and NASA for this morning's successful launch of the Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Every launch into space is a thrilling event, but this one is especially exciting because it represents the potential of a new era in American spaceflight. Partnering with U.S. companies such as SpaceX to provide cargo and eventually crew service to the International Space Station is a cornerstone of the president's plan for maintaining America's leadership in space. This expanded role for the private sector will free up more of NASA's resources to do what NASA does best -- tackle the most demanding technological challenges in space, including those of human space flight beyond low Earth orbit. I could not be more proud of our NASA and SpaceX scientists and engineers, and I look forward to following this and many more missions like it."
In the recent past, I’ve been trying to get skeptics to realize that the American space program has not come to an end because of the close of the Space Shuttle program but is instead evolving into a new type of space programming in which our national space agency lets go of the routine, almost mundane work of schlepping water and toilet paper up to ISS and gets on with the big, exciting, challenging missions of deep space exploration – returning to the moon, going on to asteroids and Mars and establishing real outposts in low earth orbit, on the moon and on Mars. Without this first step in the evolution of NASA and the American space effort, we’ll never be able to shake off the old and embrace the new. No, it will not be an easy shift nor will it be without risk – unfortunately the history of exploration will always punctuated by those who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the advance of mankind. But in almost every effort, the risk has been worth the cost, just as this will be worth the noise of skeptics trapped in the past.
For today though, let’s wave our hats and shout Hurrah for the successful launch of Falcon and Dragon and for the ever-hopeful entrepreneurial spirit of those like Elon Musk who believe in the bright future ahead – in space.