WASHINGTON – In the run up to the historic launch of the first commercial spacecraft to the International Space Station, NASA officials and space entrepreneurs stressed that the results of the test flight should be judged in terms of the overall strategy of shifting manned orbital launches from the government to the private sector.
Meanwhile, a separate long-range effort to develop a manned spacecraft that could someday leave the solar system gained momentum with the award of research contract.
On Saturday (May 19), an unmanned spacecraft developed by Space Exploration Technologies Inc., or SpaceX (Hawthorne, Calif.), is scheduled to lift off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. If all goes as planned during the ambitious mission, SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft would be the first commercial spacecraft to dock with the space station.
The flight is the second flight test for SpaceX under a NASA commercial cargo services contract. SpaceX successfully launched an unmanned Dragon spacecraft into orbit and recovered it after a splashdown in December 2010.
The upcoming mission is by far the most ambitious commercial space flight ever attempted. NASA officials and commercial space companies cautioned that even if SpaceX achieves only half its mission goals, the flight should still be considered a success.
“Test flights are called ‘test flights’ for a reason,” said former Intel executive Jeff Greason, founder of XCOR Aerospace (Mojave, Calif.), who participated in a briefing Thursday on the upcoming SpaceX launch. “There’s such a thing as luck – good and bad.” If SpaceX achieves half of it goals, Greason said, “That’s still one for the books.”
Deputy NASA Administrator Lori Garver added that the success of the SpaceX test flight will ultimately be judged by the American public. “Any outcome is still a test, because we aren’t doing this for supplying [the] space station, we’re doing it as a test,” Garver said. “It is a new way of doing things. We had a successful launch in 2010 and we’re confident SpaceX is ready to go.”
Separately, a foundation headed by a former NASA astronaut has been tapped by a Pentagon agency to begin planning for a futuristic project to develop “starship” technology that would usher in the age of interstellar space travel within the next century. The 100 Year Starship program was launched in 2010 by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as a way to stimulate development of a futuristic spacecraft designed to leave the solar system and explore the stars.
Seed funding totaling about $500,000 for the starship project was awarded Thursday (May 17) to the Dorothy Jamison Foundation for Excellence, a Houston-based non-profit group promoting STEM education that was formed by Dorothy “Mae” Jemison, a U.S. former shuttle astronaut.
“The 100-Year Starship study is about more than building a spacecraft or any one specific technology,” Paul Eremenko, Darpa’s starship study coordinator said in launching the program. “We endeavor to excite several generations to commit to the research and development of breakthrough technologies and cross-cutting innovations….”
“One Hundred Year Starship is about building the tools we need to travel to another star system in the next hundred years,” Jemison said in a statement. “We’re embarking on a journey across time and space.”
SpaceX has a full launch manifest for placing satellites into earth orbit. Others like XCOR are betting there are revenues in $1M-a-seat space tourism. All they need to do is build a safe, reliable, reusable flying machine.
One of the advantages and disadvantages of a free market economy (or mostly free market) is that something like commercial space travel on large scale will happen when people believe there is money to be made - and will ONLY happen when people believe there is money to be made.
Maybe that time is now. Or if not now, then soon.
If the commercial crew effort works, and will know a lot more if SpaceX launches on Saturday morning, they and presumably other competitors will free up NASA to move beyond low Earth orbit and work once again on manned missions in the solar system.
For much more on SpaceX, we highly recommend this:
I always respect America. Before this decade, the notion that killing NASA is a bad thing will fade. People will see private companies sustaining the space industry and that will be good for tax payers.
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.