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The Falcon 9, a new launch vehicle developed by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), made its successful debut Friday in a launch that has implications not just for the company but also for the U.S.’s commercial space industry and national space policy.

SpaceX developed the Falcon 9 in part with $278 million from NASA as part of the agency’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to develop commercial vehicles that can ferry cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). Friday’s test launch was separate from the COTS program; the first Falcon 9 launch under COTS is planned for later this summer. Elon Musk, the CEO and CTO of SpaceX, said he hopes to be able to deliver cargo to the ISS on the second of three flights under the COTS program, in the spring of 2011.

Musk also hopes the successful launch will attract the business of commercial satellite operators. One potential customer is Iridium, who last week signed a contract for the construction of 81 spacecraft to replace its existing fleet of communications satellites in low Earth orbit. SpaceX also has ambitions to use the Falcon 9, as well as the Dragon capsule SpaceX is developing to ferry cargo to the International Space Station, to carry astronauts to the ISS.

Musk said last week that SpaceX would be ready to perform crewed flights within three years of receiving a NASA contract to do so. The key factor in that schedule is the development of a launch escape system to allow a Dragon capsule to safely distance itself from the rocket in the event of a launch failure.

However, SpaceX’s long-running interest in launching astronauts, and its limited track record, have put the company in the middle of an ongoing debate in Washington about the future direction of NASA. The 2011 NASA budget proposal released earlier this year includes a new commercial crew initiative that includes $6 billion over the next five years for developing commercial systems to transport astronauts to the ISS, in much the same way that COTS is developing commercial cargo systems. Many in Congress have expressed skepticism about the commercial sector’s capabilities–SpaceX’s in particular–to transport people, arguing that this should be left to NASA.

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Credit: AP Photo/John Raoux
Video by Chris Thompson, SpaceX, edited by Brittany Sauser

Tagged: Computing, NASA, SpaceX, launch vehicle, NASA budget, rockets, Falcon 9, NASA COTS

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