This past week the world enjoyed images of the retired space shuttle Enterprise headed for New York city. It was a nice finish to that long program, but also a reminder of coming changes in how Earth conducts space missions.
Space Exploration Technologies, better known as SpaceX, will test fire its Falcon 9 rocket's engines on 30 April. Then on 7 May it will attempt to launch into space, and then possibly dock with the International Space Station (ISS). The Dragon vehicle on top of the Falcon rocket will carry a load of supplies for the ISS, in case the docking maneuver is successful. If it all works, the Earth will enter a new era in space where private companies may replace government programs.
Right now, the ISS relies on Russian, European and Japanese vehicles for resupply. Having three options is a good thing, but the costs per mission are high, and none of the three vehicles are re-useable. The advantage of SpaceX's Dragon vehicle is that it is re-useable, and less expensive. For instance, the European ATV cargo ship costs 300 million USD to build, while SpaceX will charge NASA only 133 million per resupply run. If the Falcon can dock with the ISS, SpaceX is slated to carry out 12 of these missions, designated Commercial Resupply Services (CRS).
What's particularly remarkable is that SpaceX only formed their company ten years ago, back in March 2002. In 2010, they became the first private company to launch a vehicle into orbit and then return it safely to Earth. This fast-paced development makes one wonder what they can do in the next decade, and if private companies can work in space more efficiently than government programs.
There are a lot of 'ifs' here. If the Falcon can dock with the ISS and unload its supplies, it will mean the ISS won't have to rely on the Russian, European and Japanese vehicles. The bigger picture is that space exploration may transition from a government-only arena to a partnership between private companies and governments. Will this lead to private corporations dominating space? Or will governments always think that national security interests force them to remain involved? A lot of interesting questions will be answered.
[On 30 April, SpaceX.com will feature a webcast of the engine tests on the Falcon 9 rocket at 2:30pm ET.](This post uses data from the SpaceX website, and this article from Dave Klingler at Ars Technica. The pic of the Falcon 9 rocket is from SpaceX.)