The future of American contribution in space seems to lie in the hands of private space companies. A private aerospace company, focusing on space flight, Space Exploration (or SpaceX) has been approved by NASA to send its Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station on an unmanned flight, scheduled sometime in late November and attempt a docking with the ISS in early December this year.
NASA has been relying heavily on private space vehicles to take up the mantle of ferrying hardware reliably to the International Space Station from its own space shuttle program. So much so that NASA has even been bottle-feeding them with cash in order to help them grow. Even manned flight is now in the cards, but not in the near future.
SpaceX will attempt to fly its Dragon Space Capsule past the ISS as its first mission target on November 30th and then attempt a docking with the ISS on the 9th of December this year. SpaceX and NASA are both contemplating a combination of the two missions into one, which will involve a brief fly-by before a docking attempt.
The four decade old Space Shuttle Program came to an end on the 21st of July this year after Atlantis landed and, since then, NASA has been looking at private players. SpaceX is a leader in this against three more players. As per revealed details of its contract with NASA, SpaceX will charge $1.6 billion for 12 cargo deliveries, making it $133 million per flight. This is tiny compared to the expenditure of more than $1 billion per flight of the space shuttle.
The Bigger Question(s)
If the Dragon cargo ship is delivered properly, using the Falcon rockets (made by SpaceX itself), it will be a dramatic vindication of NASA’s faith in private players in the wake of the end of the space shuttle program. The Falcon rocket parts are already assembled at the Cape Canaveral launch site. The Dragon spacecraft is yet to arrive and is expected in August or September.
The wide space left behind by the end of the space shuttle program leaves room for the super-reliable Soyuz to become the primary player in the space game. Roskosmos, the Russian space agency, realizes as much:
From today, the era of the Soyuz has started in manned space flight, the era of reliability
SpaceX is the not the only player in the game. Following it, but not very close behind, is Orbital Sciences Corp., which also has landed a NASA contract. It is planning its Cygnus’ ship for a February 2012 launch.
Reliability is a key question on everyone’s mind. If that is answered in the positive, there will be inevitable questions on the ethical decision to let private players enter into virgin territory, especially when manned space flight will be involved.