SpaceX, the privately held rocket company owned and run by technology kingpin Elon Musk, has reason to celebrate. NASA has finally given the company clearance to carry United States astronauts to the International Space Station via its Dragon capsule.
Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, happily stated that, “The authority to proceed with Dragon’s first operational crew mission is a significant milestone in the Commercial Crew Program and a great source of pride for the entire SpaceX team.”
She added that, “When Crew Dragon takes NASA astronauts to the space station in 2017, they will be riding in one of the safest, most reliable spacecraft ever flown. We’re honored to be developing this capability for NASA and our country.”
NASA has spent several years testing the Dragon capsule, which is designed to carry up to seven astronauts or approximately 13,000 pounds of cargo. The rigorous testing was performed, in part, to ensure the capsule has sufficient emergency systems to eject any crew free of an exploding rocket.
SpaceX has not actually flown a rocket since the summer when a June launch carried NASA cargo on its way to the International Space Station. A metal strut holding down a helium bottle in the rocket’s upper stage broke. Helium then leaked from the bottle causing over-pressurization of the second stage engine. It burst and the rocket exploded over the Atlantic Ocean.
Since then, SpaceX has conducted many stationary tests that indicate the problem is resolved. Shotwell pointed out that while the problem with the June launch is something that can be “easily corrected,” SpaceX is not taking chances with any other part of the rocket. “We’re taking more time than we originally envisioned, but I don’t think any one of our customers wants us to race to the cliff and fail again . . . What we wanted to do was to take advantage of the lessons that we learned from that particular failure and make sure we’re not seeing something like that anywhere throughout the vehicle.”
Kathy Lueders, the manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, stated that, “It’s really exciting to see SpaceX and Boeing with hardware in flow for their first crew rotation missions. It is important to have at least two healthy and robust capabilities from U.S. companies to deliver crew and critical scientific experiments from American soil to the space station throughout its lifespan.”
That last sentence is important. Ever since NASA retired the Space Shuttle - and subsequently failed to develop an alternative rocket - NASA has had to ask Russia to transport American crew into space, placing both the space program and the country in an awkward political situation. With both SpaceX and Boeing now having firm orders for manned flights it appears NASA will soon be done relying on Putin to catch a ride to space - at least by the end of 2017, which is when the first manned flights are slated to commence.
It has yet to be determined whether Boeing or SpaceX will take the honors for the first commercial manned space flight but any further SpaceX launch failures will likely relegate it to second place.