This morning marks an historic achievement for private spaceflight. At 9:56 am EDT SpaceX’s unmanned Dragon capsule docked with the International Space Station marking the first time a private spacecraft has rendezvoused with the orbital lab. The time of nation-state dominance in space has come to an end with this historic link-up. SpaceX has shown the world that space is open for all of humanity, not just governments. What was once done by clandestine government agencies motivated by one-upmanship is now achievable for citizens for the advancement of space exploration and colonization.
Image Credit: NASA/SpaceX
During the docking, astronaut Don Petit on-board the space station used the giant 58-foot grapple arm called Canadarm2 to reel Dragon in for berthing. After grabbing a hold of the capsule, Petit said to Mission Control in Houston, “Houston, station, it looks like we’ve got us a dragon by the tail” followed by applause in Houston and SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, CA. The operation was done in almost total darkness during orbital night using only the ISS’s exterior lights to illuminate the capsule and the grappling arm. However, the rendezvous was not without a hiccup. On Dragon’s approach to the space station, its navigation system experienced a glitch. Dragon uses a system called LIDAR (light detection and ranging) to measure distances. The LIDAR uses laser beams to measure the distance to objects by observing how long it takes the beams of light to reflect back off an object. The LIDAR experienced a glitch when stray light reflections from another module on the space station were being gathered by device. Dragon’s mission control was quick on its feet and resolved the problem by narrowing LIDAR’s field of view to eliminate the stray light. All went smoothly from there.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk is one step closer to realizing the dream of his company, to make humanity a multi-planet species. Although that goal is a very long way off, this historic accomplishment’s importance cannot be overlooked. Whether a SpaceX craft is the vehicle that takes humans to Mars or not, SpaceX has helped NASA by freeing up precious budget room that can now be devoted to planning for a Mars mission. Now NASA doesn’t have to build and fund another transport vehicle to low-Earth orbit. Now we can look forward to a future when governments and private companies cooperate in space to achieve massive goals once possible only in dreams. Now, we can, to use the common phrase, boldly go where no man has gone before!
After watching the 60 Minutes segment on SpaceX last night I’m convinced that 2012 truly is the year of the “Dragon”. As SpaceX founder and Chief Development Officer Elon Musk says, “We are at the dawn of a new age”. That new age is the beginning of private spaceflight taking over what only governments could do for fifty years, launching astronauts into space. In the 60 Minutes segment CBS anchor Scott Pelley interviewed Musk and toured the SpaceX facility in Los Angeles. Musk is a daring young entrepreneur who isn’t a stranger to uncharted territory. Musk founded PayPal back in 1999, which at the time was revolutionary. He is also the CEO of Tesla Motors which produces all-electric luxury cars. At age 40 he is a naturalized U.S. citizen and one of America’s most successful entrepreneurs. In 2002, Musk’s ambitions shifted to the aerospace industry and he founded SpaceX with the vision of lowering the cost of building rockets and spaceships to transport astronauts to low Earth orbit and beyond.
Now in its tenth year, SpaceX is competing for a NASA contract to build America’s next fleet of spaceship. Musk considers himself a little kid battling against sumo wrestlers to win the contract but he believes that his company will emerge victorious. Having already invested $100 million of his own money into SpaceX, Musk is determined to see the honors given to his spaceship. Back in 2010 SpaceX officially became the first private company to launch an unmanned ship into orbit and return it safely to Earth. After two near-misses involving timing glitches and software bugs, the unmanned capsule sat aboard a Falcon 9 rocket designed by SpaceX and orbited the Earth two times before successfully splashing down in the Pacific. The Falcon 9 rocket is a multi-stage rocket much like the Saturn class rockets used by NASA in the Gemini and Apollo programs. But unlike the Saturns, the Falcon series rockets are fully reusable. This was a part of Musk’s early goal of lowering the cost of spaceflight as each component can be recovered and reused multiple times.
SpaceX is primed to make history again on April 30th when they send their unmanned capsule named “Dragon” to the International Space Station to dock and deliver supplies. This will be the first private docking with the ISS and will surely usher in a long line of firsts in private spaceflight. The Dragon capsule is currently being used for unmanned missions, but as Pelley inquired on his visit to SpaceX’s facility, it has windows. “Why put windows on a cargo capsule?” he asks. Why? Because it’s not a cargo capsule, Musk responds. Dragon’s ultimate design is to carry astronauts. SpaceX is currently exploring the possibility of seating for seven, as many as the Space Shuttle.
When asked about American space heroes Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan’s disapproval of the government’s transitioning of space exploration to private enterprise, Musk says he’s saddened to hear men who he regards as personal heroes disapproval of his work. He believes that if they were to visit SpaceX’s facility and see the over 1,000 employees and how hard they work they would change their minds. Regardless of what critics say, Musk remains focused on fulfilling his goal of landing that NASA contract to build the next fleet of spacecraft for human exploration. Extending human presence in space is a fundamental belief of Musk’s. His vision for eventually making humans a multi-planet race would allow us to greatly increase our knowledge of the universe and survive a potential extinction scenario on Earth.
Musk, along with everyone at SpaceX is striving towards the goal set ten years ago by the daring entrepreneur to make 2012 the year of the Dragon Capsule. Americans need to get back into space and SpaceX is certainly on the brink.