With the date rapidly approaching for the initial attempt to launch the second of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 vehicles, it is important to look at what this launch could mean. The meaning is important not only to SpaceX, but rather to the United States as a whole.
Having successfully completed its flight readiness static firing test on Saturday morning, the second Falcon 9 launch vehicle is currently poised to fly its mission on Tuesday December 7.
Officially, this launch a Falcon 9 is the COTS-1 Demonstration mission. COTS, (the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services), is a program by which NASA has contracted two private companies to transport cargo to the ISS (the International Space Station) following the retirement of the Space Shuttle. SpaceX was one of the contract winners for COTS and currently they have the ability to place payloads into orbit. On June 4, 2010 the first of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch vehicles lofted a boilerplate version of the company’s Dragon capsules into orbit. That capsule, as planned, burned up on reentry 23 days later. Now, the first official COTS demonstration will see a Falcon 9 boosting a flight version of the Dragon capsule. That capsule is scheduled to reenter and splash down in the Pacific Ocean after three orbits.
To the casual observer, this flight may represent little more than orbiting an empty capsule. To the critics of SpaceX it represents something that NASA did way back on September 13, 1961 with the Mercury Atlas 4 flight. To someone who looks at it with a wider perspective, however, this flight has far-reaching implications that go way beyond SpaceX.
With the Space Shuttle retiring, United States astronauts will be forced to hitch rides aboard the Russian Soyuz. Thus, until the USA regains a capability to fly our own people on our own vehicles, our access to space will be restricted to the Soyuz and will cost between $51 million and $55 million dollars per ride. That is more than double the price that our Russian “partners” have been charging to fly space tourists and there is absolutely nothing to keep the Russians from additional inflation of the price after 2014 when the Shuttle is gone and their Soyuz is the only game in town. The cold fact is, they can charge whatever price they want and if we Americans want to get to the ISS that the US taxpayers have invested some $100 billion in, we have to pay it what the Russians see fit to charge. Thus, the quicker that the United States regains autonomous access to space- the better.
That in mind, the Congress has directed NASA to expedite the development of the SLS (Space Launch System) heavy lift booster and the Orion crew vehicle. This process, however, is bogged down in NASA’s own thicket of bureaucracy as well as the Congress’ own inability to pass a budget for the agency. Meanwhile, Boeing’s CST-100 crew capsule, which is intended to compete with the Dragon, is still little more than data on a hard drive as is the multi-developer sponsored Dreamchaser spacecraft. Additionally, the other proposed booster for COTS, operated by Orbital, is far behind the point of development achieved by SpaceX’s Falcon 9. Some critics are quick to point out that SpaceX has only one flight of the Falcon 9 to its credit. Yet, even though SpaceX has successfully flown only one Falcon 9 so far, they have working hardware and software. Thus, the best bet for the United States to regain access to space is currently the Falcon 9.
Yet another implication of the importance of this Falcon 9 orbital shot resides in the role of the Russian vehicles acting as the one and only access to the ISS. Although the Russian vehicles have demonstrated great reliability, even a concrete sidewalk can crack. Should the Soyuz or its launch vehicle experience any sort of catastrophic accident it would make access to the ISS impossible because there will be no back-up to the Soyuz. In such a circumstance, mankind may have to abandon the ISS when its consumables run out, or worse- a crew may find themselves marooned on the station itself. A booster failure would leave the Soyuz grounded while an investigation takes place and a fix is found. Any crew on the station would still be able to return to earth by way of the Soyuz lifeboats that are always docked to the station. If, however, there is a catastrophic event aboard the Soyuz on reentry- similar to, but worse than those that took place in the last few years- and the lifeboat vehicles are found to be unsafe for reentry, anyone aboard the station would be marooned there until the problem is investigated and the system is fixed. Should either of these scenarios take place, we could lose the ISS- or worse. The only solution to this issue is to get a United States space access capability up and running as fast as possible. Falcon 9 is the only active player in that game right now.
So, the pending launch of the second Falcon 9 holds implications far beyond furthering the success of an up-start rocket company. The United States has been a space faring nation for a half a century. Now, due largely to political fiddling, and general poor planning in Washington DC, the US is poised to fumble the ball of leadership in human spaceflight. SpaceX appears to be emerging as our best chance to regain the ball and help narrow the gap in US human spaceflight while ensuring the nation’s investment in the ISS.
Sun, 05 Dec ’10