SpaceX Goes to the ISS: And This Time It Means Business
IT IS hard to think of a better example of how routine spaceflight has become than the cargo missions that bring supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). But the one that launched at 00:35 GMT on October 8th is special, for a couple of reasons. First, it includes a delivery of ice cream, a rare treat for the ISS’s astronauts. Second, it is the first cargo flight ever to be undertaken by a commercial company. If it works—docking is scheduled for October 10th—it will be a dramatic vindication of the decision by NASA, America’s space agency, to delegate such missions to the private sector.
California-based SpaceX, which built the Dragon spacecraft that is carrying the cargo, as well as the Falcon 9 rocket that blasted it into orbit, has been to the ISS before. In May a demonstration flight saw another Dragon dock successfully with the station. That flight was the last of a series of technical hurdles that SpaceX had to jump in order to persuade NASA to sign off on a $1.6 billion contract for cargo trips, of which today’s launch is the first. Eleven more are planned.
SpaceX has a competitor, too. Orbital Sciences, based in Virginia and best known for manufacturing satellites, plans to test its own Antares rocket in the coming weeks, and to conduct its own test flight to the ISS, using its Cygnus spacecraft, sometime next year. If its vehicles work, then NASA will pay it $1.9 billion to run eight cargo flights of its own.
Nor are NASA’s ambitions for private space firms limited to hauling freight. Following the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, America now relies on Russia’s Soyuz to ferry its astronauts to and from the ISS. But the Dragon was designed from the start to take passengers, and, under a separate deal called the Commercial Crew Development, SpaceX is also in the running for a contract to fly people to the station. If the Falcon and the Dragon can pass another set of technical tests, the firm could start flying astronauts by 2017. Two other firms—the Sierra Nevada Corporation, a conglomerate that dabbles in satellites, energy and medicine, and Boeing, an aerospace giant—hope to fly similar missions with their own spacecraft.