For the first time in the history of space travel and exploration, a private company has successfully launched a rocket with a spacecraft that will dock with the International Space Station. Is this perhaps the dawn of the commercial space age? When competitiveness between private enterprise and market incentives replaces national space programs and government budget allocations.
The ISS’s Expedition 31 crew successfully managed to assist in docking, when they attached the SpaceX Dragon capsule with the space station’s robotic arm at 2:56 PM, coming precisely three days, six hours, 11 minutes and 23 seconds after the mission’s launch, on Friday the 25th of may, 2012.
Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, is a space transport company headquartered in Hawthorne California. NASA awarded SpaceX a contract to develop and demonstrate the human-rated Dragon as part of its Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program to transport crew to the ISS and the event this Friday was the successful fulfillment of that contract.
NASA awarded $381 million to SpaceX as part of a 2006 agreement and according to press materials, but more than $1 billion has been spent during this last decade.
Future projects in initial planning or presently in development will include the Falcon Heavy launch system, as well as the NASA robotic mission to Mars in 2018.
The Falcon Heavy is based on the Falcon 9 rocket technology. But the Falcon Heavy may be used to send a crewed Dragon spacecraft for lunar orbiting missions, similar to the Apollo missions. Or it may be used to send a modified unpiloted Dragon on a Mars landing mission.
The Dragon spacecraft carries about half a ton, and this mainly consists of rations to the ISS, including clothing, food, computer equipment and also material for future experiments.
Companies Instead of Governments
But since the retirement of the last space shuttle, the United States does no longer have the means of transporting astronauts or supplies to space. They are therefore relying on Russian space capacity and their Soyuz rockets and spacecraft to make the trips to ISS. These trips are also crucial to keep the space station in orbit, since every shuttle that docks with the station gives it a little push, moving it further up in orbit.
However, in the absence of U.S. government equipment able to reach space, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and the Dragon spacecraft makes for a commercial and private initiative that can effectively substitute any government reliance, U.S. government or foreign government.
The Ansari X Prize
Probably crucial for this new development was the Ansari X Prize. A private initiative that could provide what is required to overcome the first steps in private space exploration by prices and awards.
The X Prize and the incentives it provided for private initiatives, may have been determinate for future developments and those future incentives may instead spell space tourism or indeed resources beyond our home planet.
The X Prize foundation note that this new era could spell the fourth era for humans in space. As the first involved several decades of experimentation and unmanned rockets starting with Robert Goddard and the German V2 rockets during the Second World War.
The second era being Soviet and U.S. astronauts, building space stations, walking on the moon, and intense competition between world superpowers.
The third era would constitute a greater international corporation, research, robots and satellites of exploration and communication.
The fourth era would be marked by the first space tourists, the first private space companies and the first privately developed and operated capsules to travel to space and back (ISS).
Perhaps this is, therefore, the first step in what could become a private commercial industry in the future, only time will tell.
Also onboard are the ashes of Star Trek legend James ‘Scotty’ Doohan, fulfilling his final wish to spend eternity resting in space.