This morning’s successful launch of the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft atop the Falcon 9 rocket marks the first time in history a commercial company has attempted a mission to the International Space Station (ISS). While the success of the mission won’t be determined for a few days yet, this is still a historic day for humanity’s efforts to reach out beyond our tiny planet and a radical shift in the availability of space flight.
To begin servicing the ISS on a regular basis under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, the Dragon must complete a set of test missions to validate its ability to safely operate within the vicinity of the ISS.
The first mission, COTS 1, called for the Dragon to simply orbit the Earth and return safely, which it accomplished in December of 2010. COTS 2 would have seen the Dragon make an approach of the ISS and then return to Earth, leaving the actual berthing with the station to COTS 3. However, given that both SpaceX and NASA are anxious to begin regular resupply missions, it was mutually agreed that Dragon could complete the COTS 2 objectives and the COTS 3 berthing in the same mission.
After multiple delays, most recently the aborted launch on May 19th which saw the vehicle shutdown just .5 seconds before liftoff, today’s launch marked the beginning of the combined COTS 2/3 mission. Over the next several says, Dragon will perform various tests of its internal systems and the ability to safely navigate in space. It will then be allowed to approach the ISS and demonstrate its ability to determine distance and position relative to the ISS, and finally will be allowed to berth.
Assuming all demonstrations go according to plan and the Dragon is allowed to berth with the ISS, the Falcon 9 and Dragon system will be the first commercial vehicle to be awarded a contract to service the ISS.
Freedom of Choice
For the last 50 years, space travel has been the business of a select few world superpowers; well outside the grasp of the private corporation, much less the individual. But with SpaceX and the other commercial launch companies which have cropped up in the last few years, we are on the cusp of a new era in space travel, commerce, and science.
What SpaceX truly offers America, and indeed the world as a whole, is a choice.
Freedom of choice is something we in the open source movement strive for every day; we make choices as to what software we run and what licenses we use to release our work into the public. SpaceX has now given us a choice as to how we can conduct science and commerce in space, and as such has opened up a whole new world of possibilities.
We’ve already seen the ideas that some in the hacker community have for the future of space, ideas which are now much closer to reality. In the past, even if you had the drive, knowledge, and money, you simply couldn’t launch your own payload into orbit without the approval of the United States or Russia. As Russia fell on hard times, the approval process for Russian launches got considerably less strict, but the cost remained astronomical.
SpaceX not only offers launches at a price that is an order of magnitude less than what it would have cost even 5 years ago, but more importantly, brings the idea of the free market to space travel. As more companies enter into the industry, prices will begin to fall as competition drives improvements in efficiency and reliability. Companies like Interorbital Systems have already begun offering launch services for micro-satellites for only $8,000 USD.
If this trend continues, we can expect a future where satellites capable of communication, Earth imagery, geo-location and other scientific and humanitarian functions can be owned and operated by citizen scientists. How long until the first citizen owned satellite delivers high resolution images of our planet and releases them under a Creative Commons license?
NASA’s Open Future
Over the last 30 years, with a few exceptions, NASA’s primary function has been to maintain the Space Shuttle, a craft designed exclusively for launching and servicing objects in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) with the overall goal of constructing a permanent manned orbital outpost. With the ISS largely complete, NASA made the decision to retire the aging Space Shuttle fleet, and rely on commercial companies to develop and launch the next generation of LEO servicing spacecraft while it focuses on new missions of exploration and science.
With the successful mission of the SpaceX Dragon, and later this year when Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Cygnus makes a similar mission to the ISS, NASA will officially be free to move on to other projects. Including their recent heavy push towards open sourcing their software and creating a more transparent space program.
Projects like the International Space Apps Challenge and code.NASA promise a future where individuals and groups all over the world will be able to use, adapt, and improve upon the important research NASA does every day.