After a drive across the country, a Dragon spaceship, designed and built by SpaceX, Elon Musk’s aerospace company, arrived in Florida for launch on a mission to prove the private sector has the right stuff to take over a traditional government role of flying in orbit.
Dragon, which will be launched aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from a revamped launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, will be carrying food, water and other non-essential supplies the International Space Station (ISS). The cargo needs to be “non-essential” because if Dragon doesn’t make it through a series of in-orbit tests, it won’t be cleared for docking at the station, tentatively targeted for four days after launch.
Nevertheless, SpaceX is confident it will become the first private company to fly to the outpost.
“We’ll be prepared to go all the way to the station,” company vice president for communications Bobby Block told a small group of reporters gathered Monday at SpaceX’s Florida launch complex.
The company intends to be ready to fly as early as Dec. 19, though the NASA manager in charge of the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program office Alan Lindenmoyer tells Discovery News he doubts the flight will take place before the end of the year.
SpaceX has spent about $800 million developing the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule, about half of which came from NASA. The U.S. space agency ended its 30-year-old space shuttle program this summer and is dependent on partner countries to fly cargo — and crews — to the orbital outpost. NASA already has hired SpaceX, as well as a second company, Orbital Sciences Corp., to fly cargo to the space station beginning next year.
Orbital plans to debut its Taurus 2 rocket and Cygnus capsule next year. SpaceX has twice flown its Falcon 9 rocket, the last of which put the company’s first Dragon capsule into orbit for a trial run around the planet.
SpaceX also has a $75 million NASA contract to develop a launch escape system — the critical piece of equipment needed to upgrade Dragon from a freighter to a passenger spaceship. NASA hopes to turn over station crew ferry flights to one or more private U.S. companies by about 2016.
Image: top: Artist’s rendering of Dragon approaching station. Credit: NASA. Right: SpaceX technicians begin preparing the company’s second Dragon capsule for launch, with the aim of flying it all the way to the International Space Station. Credit: Irene Klotz/Discovery News.