Although excitement is growing for the possibility of U.S. commercially-launched astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), some international partners may need convincing.
Last week, Elon Musk went on record, setting a time frame of 10-20 years before his commercial spaceflight company, SpaceX, will start ferrying mankind to Mars. But long before that dream becomes a reality, Musk’s Dragon capsule will be acting as a taxi service for NASA astronauts to the space station.
SpaceX and other companies have been given funds out of NASA’s special commercial package to provide cargo resupply and human spaceflight capabilities when the space shuttle is retired this year. SpaceX, widely considered to be the frontrunner in this endeavor, has already sent its Dragon capsule into orbit, proving that its space launch infrastructure is viable.
With the help of NASA funds, SpaceX aims to carry out its first unmanned Dragon-ISS docking procedure by Dec. 2011, but not everyone is thrilled by this test-run plan.
“We will not issue docking permission unless the necessary level of reliability and safety is proven,” said Alexei Krasov, head of the human spaceflight department of Roscosmos. “So far we have no proof that those spacecraft duly comply with the accepted norms of spaceflight safety.”
NASA or SpaceX have yet to respond to Krasov concerns, that were reported by the Russian media last week. Although docking procedures are inherently risky, Krasov’s opinion is rather premature and more political than technical.
After the last shuttle flies, the Russian space agency will become the default space program to lift NASA’s supplies and astronauts to the ISS. The situation where NASA is paying a foreign agency for seats aboard the Soyuz capsule has been politically embarrassing — why pay someone else to send astronauts into space, when the money could be better spent on developing the next U.S. space vehicle?
Also, as pointed out by NASAWatch.com’s Keith Cowing, it’s little wonder that the head of Roscosmos would be publicly voicing concern about SpaceX safety when his agency has the most to lose from U.S. commercial cargo and human launches to the station. “What a great way to continue a monopoly on access to the ISS,” Cowing said on Friday.
My personal feeling is that Krasov’s concerns are moot — any SpaceX vehicle will conform to NASA’s stringent spaceflight safety criteria. As was evident during the Dragon capsule’s maiden launch in Dec. 2010, SpaceX ensured their vehicle conformed to strict FAA regulations, otherwise their space vehicle wouldn’t have gotten off the ground.
Russia has had little issue with safety standards from its main space station partner in the past, and it’s unlikely to have problems with SpaceX vehicles in the future.
Image: Artist impression of the SpaceX Dragon capsule docking with the space station. Credit: SpaceX