The end of the shuttle program left the U.S. with two options for getting to space: paying for a seat on a foreign rocket or hiring a ride from a commercial space company. The commercial option became viable last December, when the SpaceX Dragon became the first privately built vehicle to orbit the Earth and return home safely. During Dragon’s unmanned flight, the 13,700-pound reusable capsule rode on top of a SpaceX-built Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center into orbit and circled the planet twice before splashing down 500 miles off the Pacific coast of Mexico.
If subsequent test flights succeed, NASA could begin using the Dragon–Falcon 9 combination to deliver food and equipment to the International Space Station next year. Eventually, astronauts could fly on Dragon to the moon, Mars or beyond—SpaceX designed the capsule to accommodate seven passengers, and a planned upgrade will allow it to land on any rocky plane.