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Watching The Beginning Of The Future

In some ways, it was just another rocket launch. Americans have been launching rockets for half a century. But what made Friday, June 4th different, was that the rocket being launched was not built by the government. It was built and launched by a private company, and if the remainder of the test program goes as well as the initial launch, it will soon be carrying supplies to the International Space Station.

The company, SpaceX, is also designing a manned version of its Dragon capsule. With the Constellation program canceled by the Obama administration, it could be the near-term future of American human spaceflight.

I was able to be on the causeway on the grounds of the Kennedy Space Center through my affiliation with Aero-News.net.

SpaceX had had success launching satellites with its smaller Falcon 1 rocket, but the Falcon 9 launch was significant in that it is a vehicle that has the potential to carry a crew.

What made the launch truly historic was that it was entirely privately funded, which CEO Elon Musk and many others have said is the future of American space flight.

There was plenty of drama on the day. The launch window was open from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm, with the first launch attempt planned for about 11:20. Weather was a bit of an issue, but a telemetry problem that would control the vehicle destruct should the launch go awry pushed the launch into the afternoon.

No sooner had the telemetry problem been cleared than the range was closed again because a small sailboat strayed into the safety area. That mariner was visited by Air Force helicopters and shooed out of the way. The countdown resumed and it looked good for a launch about 1:30… but an automated safety system aborted the launch just about a second before the ignition sequence was set to begin as an engine parameter fell out of its nominal range.

Meanwhile, as the weather improved, it just got hotter out on the causeway. Fortunately, SpaceX had paid NASA for the use of a couple of its tour buses to shelter the media from the Florida sun. The countdown was recycled, and resumed about 2:30 for an attempt at 2:45 … just 15 minutes before the launch window closed.

The second time proved to be a charm. Right on cue, the rocket rumbled and rose slowly from the pad on Launch Complex 40, cleared the four lightning arrest towers surrounding the pad, and about 8 minutes later, achieved a nearly perfect 250 kilometer orbit, within one degree of SpaceX’s calculations.

If you ever bought anything on e-Bay through PayPal, you contributed something to the success of Falcon 9. Company CEO Elon Musk was one of the co-founders of PayPal, and much of his fortune came from the sale of the electronic fund transfer company in 2002, though he has been an entrepreneur his entire life. SpaceX is just one of his current projects, which also includes Tesla, a company working to design and market electric sports cars which perform like sports cars.

With the shuttle slated to be retired later this year, and with no NASA rocket in the works to take its place, Russia is the only option for carrying cargo and crew to ISS. However, SpaceX has already secured some $1.6 billion in contracts for a dozen Falcon 9 / Dragon flights to re-supply ISS, and the ultimate goal has always been to transport crew to the space station as well. But the first thing the company had to do was show they could successfully launch the Falcon 9, and that they did Friday.

There was a lot riding on a successful Falcon 9 launch. When President Obama visited the Kennedy Space Center recently, he was given a tour of the facility, and a briefing on the project. He said later in a speech that the United States would be relying on commercial space following the end of the shuttle program. The Augustine Commission on the future of human space flight pointed to companies like SpaceX as the only cost-effective way for the U.S. to continue a manned space program … that in the current economic situation, it was a luxury that the federal government could no longer afford.

America has always relied on private enterprise to do the things that need to be done. Our current space program is overseen by NASA, but at the end of the day, it was companies like Rockwell and Morton Thiokol and Rocketdyne working under government contracts that have built the shuttle components that have served so reliably since 1981. And while Falcon 9 was not the first commercially launched rocket, it was the first designed with human spaceflight as its ultimate goal, and that is what made Friday’s launch an historic event.

While the shuttle’s eventual and inevitable retirement will, in many ways, be the end of an era, Friday’s launch of Falcon 9 lets us know that America’s days in space are not done. We may simply not be relying so much on the government … or the Russians … to get us there.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

3 Responses »

  1. Hooray! I can't wait to see all of the advancements made by private enterprise. USS Enterprise here we come. Beam me up Scottie.

  2. Its amazing that the government could get that capability with such a low investment on their part. I think that this is the direction that should be taken for the future.

    Speaking of which, this whole incentivizing of commercial companies to develop and provide services to NASA while developing the commercial space market should not stop at Low Earth Orbit (LEO). There is the whole development of the space between and including the Moon and LEO (cis-lunar space).

    Yes, NASA can still go to an asteroid and a martian moon in 15 and 25 years. But in the meantime, a certain percent of NASAs budget should be set aside for prizes and COTS-like development to harvest lunar water ice, transport it to LEO, break it into hydrogen & oxygen fuel, and thereby open up the whole of the solar system while also servicing satellites. There's really no reason why the US should leave that market to others.

  3. This is an example of why the government must allow private enterprise the opportunity to fix the oil spill. BP may have the experts but free enterprise draws the creativity and ingenuity. Look at the Mars rovers. They came from free enterprise.