Today Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), a private company based in Hawthorne-CA, successfully launched its test rocket, Falcon 9. The historic flight lasted almost 10 minutes and the spacecraft reached low earth orbit where it will remain for a few weeks. The success of the flight is a great feat as well as a sigh of relief for SpaceX and other commercial space companies, which NASA has charged with building the next U.S. spacecraft to ferry astronauts to the space station after the space shuttles retire this year. NASA expects the Falcon 9 rocket to be the first vehicle ready by 2015.
Falcon 9 lifted off from Cape Canaveral, FL on its second attempt–its first try was automatically aborted seconds before launch. Tensions remained high until the first stage successfully separated from the second stage, and a second set of engines fired to propel the spacecraft into earth orbit. The test rocket carried a simulated capsule, called Dragon, which will be used to carry cargo and eventually crew to the International Space Station. The capsule will remain in low earth orbit collecting data for a couple weeks. The goal of the flight was sheer data gathering, and prior to its launch, Elon Musk, the company’s founder and CEO, said even a 70 to 80 percent success rate would be an accomplishment.
Last year, the company won a $1.6 billion contract through NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to provide NASA with a vehicle capable of reaching ISS. Falcon 9 is part of a family of rockets that SpaceX is developing that could provide U.S. transportation to space since President Obama announced a new plan for NASA, which included canceling the Constellation program and the development of the Ares I rocket, the agency’s spacecraft to replace the shuttle. Instead, Obama’s plan is to rely on the commercial space industry, companies like SpaceX and Orbital Science Corporation, to develop rockets for transportation and until they are ready the U.S. will have to buy rides off the Russians. Allowing commercial companies to build rockets for low earth orbit will enable NASA to focus on developing a spacecraft for missions to the moon, asteroids, and eventually Mars.
Many critics fear that commercial companies will undergo the same budge issues and schedule push-backs as NASA’s Constellation program, the reason Obama wants it terminated. Skeptics also fear that commercial rockets would not be as safe and reliable as a government-built vehicle. The success of Falcon 9 today shows promise that the commercial industry can get the job done.