The travel to space may be come a commercial venture. Since the grounding of America's shuttle fleet, the commercial sector is moving ahead. that is good for the country. The skills of spaceflight will not be lost and more people will do it, that makes for more opportunities for the companies willing to take a chance and prosper.
June 18, 2012Rep. Steven Palazzo wants to set the record straight, after Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren declared that the Obama administration made possible the successful flight of the SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station and back. “The Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program was proposed by the Bush administration in 2005 and authorized by Congress,” says Palazzo, the Mississippi Republican freshman who chairs the House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee. “The COTS contract that funded the SpaceX mission was awarded in 2006. The Commercial Resupply Services contract won by SpaceX and Orbital was announced at the end of 2008. Let the record be clear.”
Palazzo is right, of course. But now that SpaceX has demonstrated it can fly to the space station with pressurized and unpressurized cargo, and bring pressurized cargo back to Earth, there is plenty of credit to go around. Even Michael Griffin, who headed NASA during the Bush administration and conceived and funded the COTS federal seed money program that got Dragon off the ground, acknowledges that President Barack Obama upped the ante to $500 million a year from $500 million total funding (AW&ST May 38, p. 27).
More important is what the SpaceX flight means for commercial spaceflight in the future, both the cargo missions COTS funded for SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. (which plans to fly its first Antares/Cygnus stack this year), and possible human missions under NASA's commercial crew development (CCDev) effort. There was an immediate, practical impact on Capitol Hill, where the Republican-led House has adopted language “directing” NASA to pick a single CCDev vehicle to save development money. The same day that the Dragon splashed down in the Pacific, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that handles NASA funding, agreed to soften the House position in conference committee negotiations with the Senate. In a deal negotiated with Administrator Charles Bolden, Wolf agreed to let the U.S. space agency pick “2.5 program partners”—two proposals for a full share of federal seed money to develop commercial crew vehicles, plus another company that will receive a “partial award.” Wolf also accepted the Senate funding level for commercial spaceflight in fiscal 2013—$525 million—but not the $836 million NASA requested. The agreement also formalized NASA's plans to use a Federal Acquisition Regulation procurement for the integrated commercial crew systems the agency picks, instead of the less restrictive Space Act Agreements now in force.
For SpaceX itself, the successful flight meant some new business right off the bat. At one end of the spectrum, Intelsat contracted to be the first customer for the Falcon Heavy follow-on to the Falcon 9. And Spaceflight Inc., a Seattle-based startup founded by Andrews Space CEO Jason Andrews, signed up to use the Falcon for its planned secondary-payload business on missions with excess lift capacity.
“SpaceX is very proud to have the confidence of Intelsat, a leader in the satellite communication services industry,” says SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who has said he plans to take his company public this year. “The Falcon Heavy has more than twice the power of the next largest rocket in the world. With this new vehicle, SpaceX launch systems now cover the entire spectrum of the launch needs for commercial, civil and national security customers.”
Musk makes no secret of his desire to take over the market for launching cargo and crews to Earth orbit. The Dragon had been scarred from the beginning for commercial crew operations, and the successful rendezvous and grappling with the ISS probably gives it a leg up in the coming NASA downselect for the next round of commercial crew development support. One flight isn't going to win this space race, and Musk must be hearing the footsteps behind him as he circles the track.
Sierra Nevada Corp., which has received $100 million in CCDev funding to convert NASA's HL-20 lifting body into a hybrid-propellant commercial crew vehicle called Dream Chaser, has completed preliminary design review on the vertical-takeoff, horizontal-landing spaceplane. The review set the basic parameters of the design, architecture and performance of the integrated system, which includes its compatibility with the United Launch Alliance Atlas V that would take it to orbit. Sierra Nevada plans helicopter drop tests of the Dream Chaser, with autonomous approach and landing at Edwards AFB, this summer (AW&ST June 4/11, p. 14).