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SpaceX Hits Bulls Eye

First private space launch, orbit, re-entry

Falcon 9 lifts off from Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral.

Dragon Recovery
Dragon spacecraft is recovered in the Pacific Ocean.

SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft is the first commercial vehicle to reach orbit.

December 8, 2010 —As America’s space shuttle program winds down in the coming months, the commercial age in space travel has begun. SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon space capsule on Wednesday, December 8, in Florida, in what company officials described as “essentially a bull’s-eye.” The rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 40 at 10:43 a.m. CST and deployed the capsule into orbit; Dragon splashed down shortly after 1 p.m. in the Pacific Ocean - about 500 miles west of the U.S-Mexican border.

The 158-foot Falcon 9 rocket with a mock-up of the Dragon spacecraft was successfully launched in June but lacked some key systems that were needed in orbit such as guidance, navigation, control systems, and a heat shield.  Today’s flight tested many of those systems such as precision firing of the 18 SpaceX Draco engines during reentry, the heat shield,  and the parachute recovery system.

“Better than I expected. Almost too good,” said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who also co-founded PayPal. “Although I shouldn’t seem surprised,” he said with a laugh. “We didn’t have to go to any backup systems.”

The key for the program is to prove reusability of as much of the system as possible.  SpaceX says that the Dragon spacecraft is reusable and will eventually also feature landing gear when controllability of reentry becomes reliable. SpaceX also hopes to also recover the first stage of the Falcon 9 booster and gauge its reusability. The company says that while the first stage is designed to be used again, it may take several missions to realize the goal, but achieving this would reduce the cost by a factor of 10.

NASA began the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program in 2006 to shift some costs of maintaining and resupplying the International Space Station to private industry.  The first phase of the program was to assist the private sector in developing launch and low-earth orbit vehicles for NASA and other launch customers.  The Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program outlined four types of vehicles that would eventually deliver both cargo and humans to and from Earth’s orbit.

“This experiment is working - this public-private partnership,” said Alan Lindenmoyer, who heads NASA’s COTS program office. “We checked off all of our objectives today and it was 100 percent successful.” Lindenmoyer also complimented SpaceX for having the agility to identify a pre-launch problem on Monday, repair it, and continue with the launch in a short period of time.

NASA selected two companies to achieve this goal: SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation. NASA is funding $500 million for development and is lending its technical expertise to the two companies. The International Space Station program has signed resupply contracts with both companies through 2015.


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