A private company launched a spacecraft into orbit Wednesday in a bold demonstration test for NASA that could lead to the first commercial space station supply run next year and eventual astronaut rides.
The Falcon 9 rocket, owned by Space Exploration Technologies Corp., blasted into a clear, chilly morning sky, carrying a capsule named Dragon. The capsule successfully reached its intended 185-mile-high orbit, drawing cheers among employees for the company known as SpaceX.
“It is on its way,” said a launch commentator. “Great day here at SpaceX. Looks like we had a great flight.”
The next milestone: Dragon’s re-entry, three hours later.
It will be the first time a commercial business tries to recover a spacecraft re-entering from orbit. So far, only governments have accomplished this.
SpaceX intends for Dragon to circle the world twice, then parachute into the Pacific Ocean, 500 miles off the Mexican coast. The spacecraft carried thousands of patches for company employees; no official payload was required for this test.
NASA is hiring companies like SpaceX to haul supplies to the International Space Station following next year’s shuttle retirement. Taxi trips for astronauts may follow.
The flight had been scheduled for Tuesday, but was delayed to repair cracks in the upper-stage rocket nozzle. Wednesday’s countdown was held up briefly by a false reading that triggered an abort.
This was the first flight under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, as well as the first flight of an operational Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX’s first flight of a Falcon 9 rocket, in June, carried a capsule mock-up that deliberately burned up on re-entry.
The rocket stands at 158 feet, about the height of the shuttle’s external fuel tank.
Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration issued its first re-entry license to SpaceX, paving the way for Wednesday’s flight.
“Getting this far, this fast, has been a remarkable achievement,” said NASA’s acting director of commercial spaceflight development, Phil McAlister. He stressed that this is a test flight and that spaceflight is “very, very difficult.”
“The purpose of the test flight is to learn. So as long as we’re learning and we have a clear path for demonstration flight two, we would consider that successful,” McAlister told reporters earlier this week
The California-based SpaceX – created by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk – intends to begin station deliveries by the end of 2011. He said he could be launching station crews within three years of getting the go-ahead from NASA.
NASA already is relying on Russia to ferry U.S. astronauts to and from the space station. It’s an expensive arrangement: $26 million per person this year, rising to $51 million next year, and to $56 million in 2013.
Ideally, NASA wants multiple companies to take over the job of cargo and crew transport. The effort has taken on increased significance, McAlister said, since the working lifetime of the space station was extended to at least 2020.
SpaceX currently has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA for 12 supply runs. Orbital Sciences Corp. of Virginia has a $1.9 billion contract for eight.
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said her company has poured more than $600 million into the test flight effort so far and received $278 million from NASA. She took aim at critics, some of whom don’t trust companies to provide the same level of crew safety as NASA.
“I bristle a little bit at the whole concept of ‘cutting corners,’ ” she said this week. “Just because it’s faster doesn’t mean it’s more risky.”
NASA has just two shuttle missions remaining, in February and April. The space agency hopes to get funding for a third and final flight next summer, to restock the orbiting lab in case the commercial launch companies fall behind.