Commercial spaceflight is inching closer to reality. SpaceX Dragon capsule is set to launch on the company's Falcon 9 rocket from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, Virginia on April 30, 2012. It will dock with the International Space Station a few days later on May 3; the crew will grapple the capsule with the station's robotic arm. But even a successful mission won't mean open access to low Earth orbit for the masses. It's a small step. Not quite a giant leap for mankind.
The upcoming launch will be the second flight as part of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. COTS was established in 2005 to support the development of commercial systems capable of transporting cargo and astronauts to and from the ISS. The motivation behind the program was to create a new market for space activities. Private companies could step in and meet NASA's needs, such as delivery of supplies to the ISS, and those of other possible customers at a lower cost than traditional government funded spaceflight. This would free up NASA's resources for exploration missions beyond Earth orbit.
Dragon's maiden flight in December 2010 was SpaceX's first test. The capsule orbited the Earth twice before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean, marking the first successful launch and recovery of a commercial company's spacecraft. If the upcoming mission to the ISS is similarly successful, SpaceX will be ready to move on to operational cargo delivery missions later this year. Barring some great setback, the company's first cargo flight under its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract could be as early as August, its current scheduled date.
Routine flights to and from the ISS would see Dragon joining the fleet of cargo ships routinely making the trip; Europe's ATV, Japan's HTV, and Russia's Progress are all regular visitors to the ISS. With this many ships coming and going, the station will become a real spaceport.
Increased regular access to the ISS will play a key role in NASA enhancing its utilization of the station, giving the agency more opportunities to transport experiments and related equipment. Currently, only the Soyuz can return cargo from the ISS and its capacity is limited. Dragon's capacity could increase the ISS' value as a research station, perhaps allowing it to remain operational beyond its current 2020 retirement date.
A successful flight could also go a long way in convincing skeptics that the commercial spaceflight sector has value. But this flight, under the banner of the COTS program, is still a test flight. Problems and delays shouldn't be a surprise, serving as a reminder that easier access to low Earth orbit for NASA doesn't mean commercial spaceflight's day has come.
NASA is currently the only customer for advances in commercial spaceflight — no one else needs a cheap way to reach the ISS just yet. The only other customers interested in human transportation to low Earth orbit are the few adventurers with hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on a ticket. Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson and SpaceX's Elon Musk can afford the trip. George Whitesides, president and CEO of Branson's Virgin Galactic, said the company has signed 500 customers willing to pay $200,000 for a suborbital flight on SpaceShipTwo that is now in development. But the rest of us are out of luck.
Nevertheless, a lot is riding on a successful mission following the April launch. Even if it doesn't open up space for tourists, it's a step in the right direction. In a year where NASA is facing budget cuts and a lull in its ability to launch anything to low Earth orbit, it could be a big one for the commercial spaceflight sector.
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