T Minus 10 Minutes to the SpaceX COTS 2/3 Dragon Launch

Rob here – been a loooong time since I have posted at Out of the Cradle – but today I couldn’t stay away.

In the very early days of OotC I live-blogged several of the first launch attempts of Space Exploration Technologies’ Falcon One rocket.

SpaceX have come a long way since then. They have:

  1. Developed a new, much bigger rocket, the Falcon 9.
  2. Successfully flown Falcon 9 to orbit.
  3. Won a space act agreement with NASA to develop the Dragon space capsule to deliver cargo to and return cargo from the International Space Station, as part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program.
  4. Launched Falcon 9 a second time, this time testing the first Dragon capsule on a flight that orbited the Earth twice, and then re-entered the atmosphere to parachute to a landing in the sea off the coast of California, making SpaceX the first non-governmental entity in the world to launch a spacecraft into orbit and then recover it back to Earth.

And they now stand on the verge of launching the third Falcon 9 rocket, carrying the second Dragon capsule which, all going well, will rendezvous with the International Space Station, test its ability to perform ISS proximity operations, and possibly even be captured by the ISS robot arm and berthed to one of the station’s Common Berthing Mechanism ports. Barring problems (and this is a test flight, problems are to be expected, and in fact welcomed – that’s what test flights are for, after all) this little robot capsule could become the first non-governmental flight to carry cargo to and from the International Space Station.

So what is it about this flight that has brought me out of my (rather extended) posting hiatus?

This flight is a big deal. If it succeeds (and there are no guarantees, it’s a test flight after all) the next Dragon flight will be the first operational, commercial cargo run to the space station, and we will have a real NewSpace company making money (hauling the mail, as it were) in space. SpaceX has a 1.6 billion dollar contract with NASA to do exactly that, over the course of the next several years. A NewSpace company is going to be making money supporting a manned spaceflight operation (in the form of the International Space Station) and it’s going to be doing it much cheaper than NASA could alone, and with a great deal more innovation. The Dragon capsule flying to the Station today lacks only seats, a control panel, and a launch escape system needed to carry crew.

Back when I started Out of the Cradle, I tried to express in the ‘about’ section where I thought the future of our journey into space was headed – a long slow climb to space being a profitable industry that brings us benefits down here on Earth (yes, I’m an unrepentant Technological Optimist). Here’s what I said back then:

One day, one of the many entrepreneurial space companies out there is going to climb to the top of the vast pile of failed predecessors, make it to space, and find a way to make money there. It could take a hundred years to happen – or it could be happening right now. When it happens, everything changes.

This SpaceX test flight, whether it succeeds or fails, takes us much further down the road toward that future, and I’m excited by that.

Good luck to SpaceX, and Godspeed – Go Falcon! Go Dragon!

-Rob.

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