NASA isn't the only space game in town affected by launch delays. Last week, the space agency cleared SpaceX to launch its Dragon capsule to the International Space Station on April 30. It will be a historic mission, the first time a commercial vehicle has reached and docked with the ISS, but it won’t be a punctual one: Necessary hardware testing has forced SpaceX to push the launch back by weeks. On its own, one launch delay isn't a big issue. It's when these delays start to pile up and delay the whole program that it becomes a serious issue.
SpaceX's offering to NASA for low Earth orbital missions is centered around the Dragon capsule that is launched on the Falcon 9 rocket. The program falls under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. Designed to have private industry take over where the shuttle left off, the end goal is for NASA to outsource low Earth orbital flights and focus on the lofty, interplanetary missions itself.
Phase 1 of the COTS program – COTS 1 – calls for the private companies to demonstrate their hardware in a launch and recovery mission. SpaceX has done this with two successful Falcon 9 launches, the second of which carried a Dragon capsule to demonstrate the spacecraft's capabilities.
In preparation for its COTS 2 mission, the flight to the ISS, SpaceX has run though simulations of Dragon's docking that approximate the environment and circumstances its expected to face in orbit. Without a space station on the ground for practise, it's the best SpaceX can do.
But then a hardware problem popped up. "After reviewing our recent progress, it was clear that we needed more time to finish hardware-in-the-loop testing and properly review and follow up on all data," SpaceX said in a statement. SpaceX founder Elon Musk's tweet that broke the news was more a little more concise: "Am pushing launch back approximately a week to do more testing on Dragon docking code."
NASA flight engineer Don Pettit waxes rhapsodic about the Dragon module.
It's possible the mission could launch as early as May 3, but to give the company some wiggle room it likely won't launch before May 7. That is, of course, pending coordination with NASA.
Once Dragon does launch, it will arrive at the ISS within three days and move through a series of maneuvers and fulfill the COTS 2 requirements. Dragon will demonstrate proper performance and control in orbit by delicately navigating and moving around the ISS while remaining outside the station's safe zone. If all goes well, SpaceX will get the OK to proceed to COTS 3 activities. Dragon will then approach to within a few feet of the station, close enough for astronauts aboard to grapple the pod with the station's robotic arms and pull it into a docking port.
Once the kinks are ironed out, NASA will have a viable commercial transportation system on its hands. SpaceX is one of the two companies NASA hired to take over flight to the ISS after retiring the space shuttle last year. Not only will this partnership give SpaceX a pivotal role in space activities, it will life a huge financial burden from NASA's shoulders.
Under the COTS program, NASA only makes fixed-price payments only when the private company reaches milestone flights as defined by objective success criteria. This is much cheaper than funding a whole low Earth orbital program, and it means that the government won't assume any equity in the participating companies. Flights to the ISS get cheaper, and NASA enjoys the benefits of more funding free for its other programs.
If the upcoming Dragon mission fails, NASA will be forced to rely on Russia a little longer for launches the ISS, and spend more money every time. Here's hoping SpaceX maintains its impressive rate of progress and give the United States the ability to launch its own astronauts again.