Update: After abnormally high pressures were detected inside the Falcon 9's center engine, this morning's launch was aborted at the last second. The next available launch window is this Tuesday.
Tomorrow morning, whether they realize it or not, Americans will likely wake up to a new era. Though nothing will be outwardly different, a fundamental shift in the nature of spaceflight will commence during the wee morning hours. Call it a defining moment, or a milestone, or simply call it what it is: the dawn of the private spaceflight industry's real presence in outer space.
Barring some unforeseen setback, at 4:55 a.m. EDT, a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon spacecraft--both built by private spaceflight firm SpaceX--will blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida en route to the International Space Station with the goal of becoming the first privately built spacecraft to rendezvous with the ISS. This is the partial culmination of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which aims to do two things: jumpstart the commercial space industry's ability to service low Earth orbit, and get NASA out of the low Earth orbit transportation business so it can once again focus on pushing the boundaries of space exploration.
Both of those goals are meaningful. For NASA, that (hopefully) means a return to days of boldly going where no man has gone before (to Lagrange points, for instance, or to asteroids and eventually Mars). But more so this weekend belongs to SpaceX. The company has once made history by being the first private company to launch and successfully retrieve a spacecraft from Earth orbit. A successful rendezvous with the ISS followed by a successful return of cargo to Earth will ring up so many "firsts" for the company that its place in spaceflight history will be secure.
Because, simply put, that's what this weekend is: historic. It's a shame almost no one is going to be awake to see it get underway.
As launches go, this is business as usual. But it marks a passing of the torch that's beyond symbolic. NASA wasn't the first to go to space, but it became the best. Post-Apollo, both the Russians and the Americans proved they could make regular trips to low Earth orbit and back--albeit at a high financial cost. What SpaceX and the rest of the private space industry aims to do is bring low Earth orbit even closer to home by proving that space is no longer only reserved for wealthy governments--that everyday civilians can access space at regular intervals and at a reasonable cost. Fifty years after we first went there the space immediately around the planet will cease to be a frontier and become a settled and civilized place.
On Saturday morning, the company's Falcon 9 rocket will lift off as it has before, carrying a Dragon capsule full of non-essential cargo skyward. The real point of this mission is to prove that SpaceX can safely maneuver its robotic capsule on orbit prior to linking up with the ISS.
To that end, from the moment the Dragon capsule reaches its preliminary orbit and deploys its solar arrays it will be undergoing something of an audition that will last for several days. A series of carefully orchestrated engine firings will bring it closer to the ISS, during which time it will test its Absolute Global Positioning System, which uses GPS satellites to determine its precise position in space. It will conduct a free drift demonstration, wherein all of its thrusters will be powered off and the spacecraft will simply float. And at the opposite extreme, it will try out its abort function to make sure that in an emergency, it can quickly clear the vicinity of the ISS.
If all of that goes well, Dragon will approach within 1.5 miles of the ISS on the third day of its flight (Monday) and perform what's known as a "fly-under," in which it will fly below the station while testing out its relative GPS against the space station's and link up with it via UHF communications to ensure the astronauts aboard the ISS can exchange commands and data with the spacecraft. After all of that, on mission day four (Tuesday), NASA will either call off the demonstration or allow the docking to proceed.
Here things begin to liven up again. Having made a huge loop around the ISS from its place below it to points in front of and above it, the spacecraft will take up residence behind and below it once again. The final approach will take hours. A series of go/no-go tests will be completed at various distances from the ISS as the spacecraft inches closer. LIDAR and thermal imaging systems will be checked and rechecked. And after all this delicate dancing, at just 32 feet from the ISS, astronauts aboard will finally use the station's robotic arm to snare the Dragon capsule and reel it in. It will remain berthed to the ISS for two weeks.
And only now do we finally come to the exciting--and most important--part. Both Russia and the European Union currently have robotic space vehicles that they send to the ISS carrying cargo and supplies, vehicles that are then decoupled and discarded in Earth's atmosphere, where they burn up upon re-entry. These spacecraft work, but they are clearly wasteful; they are single-use spaceships. Dragon will go a mile further by returning to Earth to be used again. After days and weeks of waiting and watching and testing and then simply being docked, the capsule will return home in a matter of hours.
Just four hours after being decoupled from the ISS it will begin its de-orbit burn, which will last about seven minutes. All said, re-entry will take half an hour. Some 250 miles off the Pacific Coast of the U.S., Dragon will come splashing down--just like the Mercury and Gemini and Apollo capsules from NASA's golden age. But packed with cargo sent back from the ISS, the Dragon will really be more akin to a Space Shuttle. America will once again have the ability to go into space and safely return--something we've done hundreds of times before and yet, five decades and billions upon billions of dollars after first punching a hole in the sky and entering the space beyond, something totally new.
Well this is awesome! Putting a commercial aspect to it ensures competition, and with that, space will really open up. Can't wait to see if everything goes ok.
I totally agree, good luck! Go SpaceX!
Definatly waking up early to watch this. Congratulations to Elon Musk and SpaceX, I wish you Godspeed. Reducing the cost of spaceflight and establishing a multi-planetary civilization are wonderful goals. Looking forward to a new era in space exploration :)
. . . And this is just the beginning.
Wait 'til you see SpaceX's fully reusable "powered re-entry vehicles" (not only the capsules, but also the 1st and 2nd stages will power land). And if that wasn't enough, wait 'til you see the FalconX rocket and FalconXX - a monster rocket capable of putting a house in space!! - But why do that when SpaceX in partnership with Bigelow Aerospace will use these new rockets to put factories in space the size of football fields!!!
My friends, that was the vision of our current president - Barrack Obama.
So if you agree with me then adopt the motto, "FORWARD". The naysayers are about to be muted.
Exciting times ahead in space
So then in the potential two weeks on dock, I hope they are replacing a buttload of computer gear so that IDIOT HACKERS can't destroy something that's so far beyond their own creativity that it makes their gameplaying look pathetic at best.
While I think that NASA often gets a bad rap, I truly hope that this works.
I cannot believe anyone thinks that space is "really going to open up" now. When is a corporate entity EVER open about it's property and behavior?
Now that space exploration and travel is no longer in the hands of a publicly funded organization, answerable to congress and thus the American people, anything they discover up there is going to become a PROPRIETARY SECRET. The wonderful technological breakthroughs that have impacted every single one of your lives by filtering down from NASA will not be repeated. Corporations do not open source their findings or schematics. They license them under copyrights.
Say goodbye to technological innovation in the US as brought about by space travel. By handing over this effort to private entities, you just ensured you don't share a part in it.
"....(Probably) Happening This Weekend"
Scrubbed until May 22 because a check valve in the #5 (center) engine's turbopump failed just after ignition. Their multi-redundant flight systems picked it up and shut down everything before more serious damage could be done.
Nothing that hasn't happened before to numerous other rockets including the Shuttle, so good luck Tuesday SpaceX :)
I have to agree with JaiGuru. Corporate ownership will stifle innovations in space technology. I am all for space flights for private industry as long as the public doesn't have to pay for it, but what Space X and other private companies are doing is funding their research and development on the citizen's dime. This is the same ploy the oil and gas industry is now doing with tax subsidies. They are injecting fluids into the ground that could possibly destroy the local environment without disclosing what chemicals and methods they are using.
Space flight has a direct and measurable effect on the atmosphere and we all have a collective right to know what these companies are dumping into the air.
NASA may be wasteful but the knowledge gained has been well spent tax money. Spending that money on a 'for profit' industry is not only bad policy, but possibly unconstitutional. At least the defense department technology is turned over to the military. What happens to space technology once the flight is over?
who ever said that these private companies were being publicly funded? and I for one strongly disagree with Jai Guru in that commercializing space will stifle innovation, sure they're not going to open source but because they're commercial and commercial orginizations will be putting MORE MONEY into space innovation than nasa and that competition will be stronger than nasa deals with so they will step up to the challenge, if they cant step up someone else will and that is the beauty of the free market in science .
The idea that a private space industry will stifle innovation is absurd. Since when did licensing technology become a bad thing? It's an incentive to innovation because there is a reward for creating something new and better. Most major private and public universities have departments devoted to licensing technology developed by students. Has there been a dearth of new research and technology coming out of universities since these departments became popular? Of course not. Technological development at the university level has exploded because of private money being funneled back into schools to further fund exceptional research programs.
Saying that innovations made by a private company won't filter down to everyone is also ridiculous. Almost everything you own is from a private company. Almost everything you own wouldn't exist if it weren't for private innovation.
NASA is relying on a private company because SpaceX can do it cheaper, faster, and better. Sounds like a good use of tax dollars to me.
finally someone who understands how the free market system leads to amazing leaps in science, thank you for clarifying and adding to what I stated JRS ONE.
I agree with the above article- the launching (and successful docking of SpaceX) represents the beginning of private spaceflight, and furthermore, space entrepreneurialism. Today (or in the near future), space entrepreneurs will be launching their own satellites for under $10k, travelling to space, and possibly even mining asteroids for precious metals. I wrote more about all these at www.biginscience.com/home/2012/4/29/space-entrepreneurs-mining-asteroids-commercializing-space-t.html