Reaching Orbit – SpaceX: The New Frontier
With the decommissioning of the space shuttles, commercial companies have taken on the role of building re-useable spacecrafts. SpaceX is developing one such spacecraft under the Commercial Orbiting Transportation Services (COTS) ran by NASA. They were awarded a contract of up to $1.6 billion for a minimum of 12 flights to the International Space Station. They also have the option of performing additional flights for up to $3.1 billion.
Going by the name of Dragon, the SpaceX spacecraft is composed of a nosecone, the spacecraft and the trunk. The nosecone protects the spacecraft as it passes through the atmosphere. The spacecraft itself holds the crew and cargo along with the support infrastructure like the avionics, parachutes, etc. The trunk holds unpressurized cargo and supports the thermal radiators and solar arrays. The Dragon spacecraft will also be able to return cargo to Earth, which has yet to be accomplished by any other cargo carrier. SpaceX is even supplying the Falcon 9 launch vehicle to jettison the spacecraft into space.
SpaceX is well on its way to sending the first commercial vehicle into space. They recently completed the Flight Readiness Review for its demonstration flight on April 30, 2012 to the International Space Station. This first flight will not have a crew, but it will carry nearly 1,200 pounds of cargo to the astronauts living on the station. This will be a tense flight as both the spacecraft and launch vehicle are relatively young and have had only a few test flights and launches. The Dragon capsule has already completed a launch into Earth's orbit along with recovery; and knowing that the capsule can withstand reentry and the parachute system functioned properly is a good sign for the Dragon spacecraft.
Above is a video simulation of the Dragon launch, flight and landing. Get out your glow sticks and turn up the volume to hear the sweet background music. (Movie Credit: NASA)
This demonstration flight will mark a new era in both government and commercial run space flight. We leave behind us a legacy that was built upon the success of the NASA program, which not only sent humans into space and to the Moon, but heralded in new avenues of science and innovation. Let us not forget the everyday products that were made possible by NASA's innovation, as such the metal used in braces, scratch resistant lenses, memory foam, the ear thermometer, shoe insoles, smoke detectors, cordless tools and water filters – unfortunately we cannot add Tang to this list! We can only hope that the commercial sector can achieve as much and more; and only time will tell how this shift will affect future space flight, exploration and innovation.