SpaceX Set To Make History Before The Year Is Out.

Whenever I find myself getting frustrated with the sorry state of government funded space programs overseas I don’t have to look much further than SpaceX to feel inspired once again. From their humble beginnings back in 2002 they have shown they are capable of designing, building and launching rockets on a fraction of the budget that is currently required. Their ambition also seems to have no bounds with their CEO, Elon Musk, eyeing off a trip to Mars with the intent of retiring there. SpaceX is also the USA’s only launch system provider who’s got a roadmap for delivering humans to the International Space Station, a real necessity now that the shuttle fleet has retired.

You can then imagine how exciting it is to hear that SpaceX has received in principle approval from NASA to combine the next 2 Commercial Orbital Transport Services (COTS) demonstration flights into one. That might not sound like much on the surface but it means that SpaceX’s Dragon capsule could be docking with the ISS this year:

Over the last several months, SpaceX has been hard at work preparing for our next flight — a mission designed to demonstrate that a privately-developed space transportation system can deliver cargo to and from the International Space Station (ISS). NASA has given us a Nov. 30, 2011 launch date, which should be followed nine days later by Dragon berthing at the ISS.

NASA has agreed in principle to allow SpaceX to combine all of the tests and demonstration activities that we originally proposed as two separate missions (COTS Demo 2 and COTS Demo 3) into a single mission. Furthermore, SpaceX plans to carry additional payloads aboard the Falcon 9’s second stage which will deploy after Dragon separates and is well on its way to the ISS. NASA will grant formal approval for the combined COTS missions pending resolution of any potential risks associated with these secondary payloads. Our team continues to work closely with NASA to resolve all questions and concerns.

That’s right, if everything stays on schedule (which, I’ll admit, isn’t very likely) then we’ll see a Dragon capsule docking with the ISS and the first time in history that a private company has docked with a space station. The mission will test all of the fligh avionics, communication systems and docking procedures that SpaceX have designed for the Dragon capsule. Whilst the Dragon going up there doesn’t appear to have a cargo manifest it will be bringing cargo back down from the ISS, which will be a good test to see if their current design has any flaws in it that can be rectified for future missions.

The current docking procedure for the Dragon capsule is surprisingly similar to that of JAXA’s HTV. For the COTS Demonstration 2 flight at least the Dragon capsule will fly very close to the ISS where it will then be captured by CANADARM2 which will guide it into a docking port. It’s interesting because from the past few missions I had assumed that the Dragon was capable of automated docking, especially with (what seemed to be) rather advanced DragonEye sensor being tested on previous shuttle flights. Still automated docking is quite a challenge and the captured route is a lot safer, both for SpaceX and the astronauts aboard the ISS.

The announcement also comes hand in hand with some improvements that SpaceX has made to their launch stack. They’ve installed new liquid oxygen pumps that now allow them to fully fill the Falcon 9 in under 30 minutes, a third of the time it use to require. This means that SpaceX could roll out, fuel and launch a Falcon 9 in under an hour something that hasn’t been possible with liquid fueled rockets in the past. They’re also ramping up their production facilities with an eye to have up to 16 launches per year, a phenomenal amount by any measure.

SpaceX continues to show that the private sector is quite capable of providing services that were for the longest time considered to be too expensive for anyone but the super power governments of the world. The announcement that a Dragon capsule could be visiting the ISS this year shows how much confidence NASA has in their capabilities and I’m sure that SpaceX will not fail to disappoint. We’re on the verge of a revolution in the space travel game and SpaceX are the pioneers who will lead us there.

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