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Falcon 9 Soars in Its Debut

A successful launch moves commercial space companies toward human spaceflight.

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.

Up, up, and away: The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral on Friday, June 4. The rocket’s maiden test flight is considered a boon for the commercial space industry.

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.

Congressional critics of the new NASA plan offered SpaceX lukewarm praise, at best. The launch “is a belated sign that efforts to develop modest commercial space cargo capabilities are showing some promising signs,” said Texas senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee. “This test does not change the fact that commercial space programs are not ready to close the gap in human spaceflight if the space shuttle is retired this year with no proven replacement capability and the Constellation program is simultaneously canceled, as the president proposes.”

Others in the industry sided with the White House, including Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation. “Today’s SpaceX launch strengthens my hope that commercial space companies will at long last remove the cost barrier that slows our exploration of the solar system,” he said.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden praised the launch. “SpaceX’s accomplishment is an important milestone in the commercial transportation effort and puts the company a step closer to providing cargo services to the International Space Station,” he said in a statement issued shortly after the successful launch. “This launch of the Falcon 9 gives us even more confidence that a resupply vehicle will be available after the space shuttle fleet is retired.”

SpaceX is not the only company interested in carrying cargo and crews to the ISS. Orbital Sciences Corporation, with a similar COTS award from NASA, is developing its own launch vehicle, the Taurus II, and cargo spacecraft, called Cygnus. Orbital plans to perform a test flight of the Taurus II and Cygnus in the first half of 2011. United Launch Alliance, the joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin that manufactures the Atlas and Delta rockets, has also expressed interest in upgrading those rockets to be able fly crewed spacecraft.

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