Saturday, 19 May 2012

Back to basics for US

A private space company attempting to make history today by firing its Dragon space capsule into orbit en route to a rendezvous with International Space Station had its launch aborted in the final seconds of liftoff.

The launch of the Falcon 9 and Dragon has been strictly downplayed as a ‘test flight’ by SpaceX officials and NASA observers. But a lot rests on its successful outcome which could buoy or blunt future political support for a private US space race in human spaceflight.

A year ago the iconic buildings and launch pads at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, were still a hive of activity and excitement as NASA and the US remained enraptured by the final launches of the Space Shuttle programme.

This morning’s dawn launch preparations took place far away on a dedicated launch pad and SpaceX preparation area at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. A new launch attempt is now likely to be made on Tuesday.

Pre-dawn view of Falcon F9 and Dragon on launch pad.                       
I visited the SpaceX site last summer when the company was keen to show off its facilities and give us a close up view of the launch pad as it was preparing for an end of the year Falcon 9 launch.

Up-close view of a Falcon F9 rocket for the Lighthouse Keeper.             
If fully successful, this new mission will be a big confidence boost for SpaceX and NASA, which are partners for at least 12 unmanned cargo delivery flights to the Space Station over the next few years.

It will also edge the US a little closer to regaining its ability to launch humans into space - a capability it had maintained for five decades until the final launch of the Space Shuttle last summer.

NASA has paid SpaceX $381 million in an agreement to help pay for the design, development, and testing of the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX has spent $1.2 billion to date, including public and private capital.

NASA and SpaceX are also jointly funding the design of a crewed version of the Dragon spacecraft to transport astronauts to the Space Station later this decade.

Upper part of SpaceX rocket in assembly hanger.           Clive Simpson
Flown Dragon capsule on display in Florida.                Clive Simpson
But SpaceX still has to compete with other aerospace companies for further NASA financing to support development of rockets and spacecraft for human occupants.

"We know this has been touted as a huge mission," said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX's president. "We keep trying to say it's a test. Nonetheless, it's a big job. Success is not going to mean success of the commercial space industry, and failure is not going to mean failure of the commercial space industry."

Shotwell told a press conference at KSC the day before the flight that the most important outcome of the Dragon test flight was to learn from it - as the spacecraft's solar arrays, navigation and rendezvous sensors, and flight computer were all new.

Politically the flight comes at a crucial juncture just as budget decisions are about to be made in Washington.

Success will prove it is possible for SpaceX and other commercial operators to do the work NASA has advanced since the 1960s.

The mission is crucial for International Space Station operations. Assuming all goes well, SpaceX intends to launch its first, fully loaded cargo resupply mission to the station in mid-August.

Another company - Orbital Sciences Corp - has a $1.9 billion contract to launch its Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft on eight cargo missions.

Orbital plans to launch a test flight of its Antares rocket in July. Then in September, an Antares rocket is scheduled to launch a Cygnus cargo carrier on a demonstration mission before its first cargo resupply mission to the Space Station in early 2013.

With the US pace Shuttle fleet firmly retired, the Dragon is the only means to return scientific experiments and equipment from the Space Station. All other robotic cargo carriers servicing the orbiting outpost double as rubbish trucks and burn up in the atmosphere.

Artist's impression of Dragon approaching the Space Station.                
"Since we no longer fly shuttles, we can’t take anything sizeable back down from the Space Station and this is absolutely critical to Space Station," Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, said.

The commercial space race in the US may be hotting up but it can’t disguise the fact that the country and NASA will remain without the ability to put people into orbit for at least another five years or perhaps longer.