Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Private Spaceflight--Blasting Off

Hey, if you're interested in privately-funded spaceflight, here's a tidbit from Spaceflight Now you might want to peruse. It's a partial transcript of a post-launch press briefing by Elon Musk. Musk is the founder of SpaceX, a private company contracted by NASA to develop the Falcon 9 rocket for delivering cargo to the International Space Station. According to SpaceX's website, if all goes well with the rocket's development, "At the option of NASA, the Agreement can be extended to include demonstrating transport of crew to and from the International Space Station (ISS). If successful, NASA will have the ability to use the demonstrated capability to resupply the ISS after the 2010 retirement of the Space Shuttle." The goal for SpaceX is to create a line of launch vehicles that will reach anywhere from low Earth orbit to other planets. The company just tested its Falcon 1 rocket as part of developing the Falcon 9, but that is only the beginning of their plans for private spaceflight. Also from their website:

As part of this Agreement, SpaceX will execute three flights of its Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon spaceship. These will be the first flights of the Dragon spaceship and the fourth, fifth and sixth flights of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

The missions are scheduled to occur in the late 2008 to 2009 time period and will culminate in demonstrating delivery of cargo to the ISS and safe return of cargo to Earth. The Dragon spaceship is designed from the beginning to have an identical structure for both cargo and crew transport, allowing for a rapid transition from unmanned to manned flight as soon as reliability is proven.

"By stimulating the development of commercial orbital spaceflight, the NASA COTS program will have the same positive effect on space travel as the Air Mail Act of 1925 had on the development of safe and affordable air transportation," said Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO. "Moreover, the requirement for significant private investment and the fact that NASA only pays for objective, demonstrated milestones ensures that the American taxpayer will receive exceptional value for money."

The freshly tested Falcon 1 rocket met with mixed success, making it to space, but failing to establish orbit. However, Musk was quite pleased with the progress nonetheless, and has high hopes for the future. Apparently the most dangerous part is making it off the planet, and the rest will be a fairly straightforward fix, as Musk discussed in his press briefing:
"I feel very confident 10 years from now that we can be putting both satellites and people into orbit, and maybe beyond (Earth) orbit. I feel very confident in the future of commercial spaceflight, private spaceflight and I think this bodes very, very well actually for achieving some of the goals that I mentioned. It is really an excellent indicator that a small company can achieve great things....We had what I would call a relatively minor issue with the roll-control very late in the flight. But all the really big risk items, the ones we were most concerned, have been addressed. If you look at the early history of rocketry, I think they had something like 12 Atlas failures before the 13th one was successful. To get this far on our second launch being an all-new rocket -- new main engine, new first stage, new second stage engine, new second stage, new fairing, new launch pad system, with so many new things -- to have gotten this far is great."
Sounds encouraging. I'm totally on board with the notion that privately funded and developed spaceships can and should be part of humanity's space future. I really like seeing NASA contract with private companies to meet its goals, especially since America's space shuttle is soon to be grounded. Private industry can take financial risks that government agencies shouldn't necessarily be taking, and a commercial spaceflight industry can reap great rewards in the process, both from government contracts and private tourism/commercial transportation. With companies like SpaceX putting private expertise to work, in hopes of making a profit, everyone involved, NASA included, can ultimately benefit, and as Musk pointed out, NASA, and thus the taxpayer, "only pays for objective, demonstrated milestones." Free market meets space. Two of my favorite things taking flight together. Go for launch.

Hat tip: Instapundit, for the press briefing link.