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Dragon, Falcon 9 Success December 8, 2010

Posted by skywalking1 in Space.

Falcon 9 and Dragon lift off on Dec. 8, 2010. (Audette/Reuters)

Watching the final seconds of a countdown always ups my adrenaline levels. So much is riding on the next few seconds. Watching the Falcon 9 rise brought a surge of excitement. Beautiful liftoff!

Big step forward, I think. Two successes in a row. NASA may get the cargo capability it’s counting on to fill the gap left by the retiring shuttle. Flying Dragon atop the Falcon 9 is a fundamental step toward meeting SpaceX’s cargo commitment to NASA, and in moving eventually toward safe and economical astronaut transport.  I’m looking forward to NASA’s other cargo provider, Orbital Sciences, also getting off the ground in the next year.

SpaceX deserves a lot of credit for duplicating their initial success and orbiting and retrieving the Dragon spacecraft. It was an ambitious flight that looked very good. NASA may make spaceflight look easy sometimes, but this was a tough flight plan to execute for a new commercial firm. SpaceX’s equipment appears to have met a big technical challenge, and we’ll have to look for similar business success to provide NASA with cheaper options for space cargo and astronaut transport.

A few additional thoughts:

1. Success on this second Falcon 9 (both went to orbit), and now inserting the Dragon capsule into orbit and retrieving it, is impressive for any new vehicle, let alone a commercial one.

2. If Dragon showed it can maneuver in orbit on this 2-orbit flight, cargo delivery to ISS is much closer. Great news for NASA and ISS partners.

3. Recovery of Dragon at end of flight means that some small amounts of cargo may eventually return from ISS, a valuable capability after shuttle retires.

4. Ultimate purpose of Dragon is to fly astronauts to ISS, and later, tourists and other customers, to orbit. Launch today was a big technical success on that trail.

Remaining steps:

  • Demonstrate Dragon can maneuver safely and precisely in orbit
  • Approach ISS for rendezvous and proximity operations tests
  • Grapple by the ISS robot arm, and berth to ISS
  • Recovery of Dragon with ISS “downmass” cargo aboard.
  • Develop and test launch escape system for astronauts
  • Tests of life support systems for future crews

Another open question is whether SpaceX can actually stay in business/make money by launching cargo for NASA. Congress may move to cut the subsidy SpaceX is getting to develop a crewed Dragon. But I send congratulations to SpaceX – the nation needs some progress on a successful path that will get American astronauts to ISS on American rockets as the shuttle retires. If the business case remains credible, this SpaceX approach may be one that can get us there.




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