On Tuesday May 22nd, at 3.44 am Eastern Standard Time, scientists at Florida's Kennedy Space Center celebrated five decades of Space adventure with an unprecedented event - The launch of the first privately built spacecraft.
The Falcon 9 rocket that transported the Dragon spacecraft into orbit is the brainchild of Southern California-based SpaceX. If the unmanned spacecraft is successful in this inaugural journey which involves transporting goods to and from the International Space Station (ISS), the company will join the elite group of only a handful of governments to have ever successfully completed space missions.
Though the launch was successful, Dragon still has a lot to prove before the mission can be hailed a success. For the next few days, the reusable spacecraft will inch closer to the International Space Station that is currently orbiting the Earth at 17,000 mph. Along the way, it will complete a series of complicated tests and maneuvers and only if NASA scientists are satisfied, will the spacecraft be reeled in by ISS's robotic arm and allowed to dock. The reason for this is that NASA wants to ensure that the untested spacecraft will not cause any damage to the 100 billion USD International Space Station and more importantly, harm its seven resident astronauts.
If all goes according to plan, Dragon will dock at the ISS on Saturday, May 26th where it will remain until the 31st, to allow the astronauts to offload the supplies and load items they need returned to Earth. Included in the 1,014 pounds that the 14.4 feet tall and 12 feet wide capsule is carrying, is 674 pounds of food and supplies, student designed science experiments and even, a laptop computer.
While the initial missions by SpaceX will be unmanned and carry just cargo, the company is planning future manned missions too. Built to accommodate up to seven astronauts, the Dragon spacecraft features state of the art technology and is therefore much more economical than the Soyuz, the Russian spacecraft that NASA is currently using to transport astronauts back and forth from the ISS.
Each trip aboard the Soyuz sets them back $70 mm USD. In contrast, the SpaceX shuttle will cost a mere $20 million per astronaut! And, that's not all. Elon Musk, the CEO of the SpaceX has even bigger plans - To build a spacecraft that can take men on a mission to the moon and even, to the Red Planet!
While SpaceX is the first to successfully launch the cargo rocket, it is not the only private company that is trying to get into the lucrative space business. Dulles based Orbital Sciences Corporation also has a contract to deliver cargo for NASA and is planning to launch its inaugural mission, later this year.
Also, while important, NASA is not the only customer these private companies will be catering to. SpaceX also has contracts with corporations like Verizon and Direct Television to help them launch satellites to lower orbits. How quickly commercial space travel takes off depends on the success of Dragon - Something the 1,800 employees of the Hawthorne-based company are monitoring, with abated breath!
Resources: news.Yahoo.com, spacex.com, pcworld.com.