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By 23 May 2012 | Categories: news

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In an auspicious occasion for private space flight, this week Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) took a small step that may well  prove to be a giant leap for commercial space travel, while securing SpaceX a place in the history books.
 
The private company successfully completed the beginning of its ambitious mission to send an unmanned spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS), as its Falcon 9 rocket, carrying the Dragon spacecraft, was launched into orbit from the company’s launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
 
The small step...
 
SpaceX chief executive officer and chief designer Elon Musk explained that the vehicle’s first stage performed nominally before separating from the second stage, which successfully delivered the Dragon spacecraft into its intended orbit. This marks the third consecutive successful Falcon 9 launch and the fifth straight launch success for SpaceX.
 
However, like any good space mission, this is just the start of Dragon’s ordeal, as it now faces a series of tests to determine whether the vehicle is ready to dock with the station.
 
“We obviously have to go through a number of steps to berth with the Space Station, but everything is looking really good and I think I would count today as a success no matter what happens with the rest of the mission,” Musk continued.
 
Highlights of Dragon’s week ahead include:
 
Today: Dragon orbits Earth as it travels toward the International Space Station.
Tomorrow: Dragon’s sensors and flight systems are subjected to a series of complicated tests to determine if the vehicle is ready to berth with the space station; these tests include manoeuvres and systems checks in which the vehicle comes within 1.5 miles of the station.
May 24: NASA decides if Dragon is allowed to attempt berthing with the station. If so, Dragon approaches. It is captured by the station’s robotic arm and attached to the station, a feat that requires extreme precision.
May 25 - 31: Astronauts open Dragon’s hatch, unload supplies and fill Dragon with return cargo.
May 31: After approximately two weeks, Dragon is detached from the station and returns to Earth, landing in the Pacific, hundreds of miles west of Southern California.
 
The giant leap...
 
Commenting on the significance of the day, Musk, who is a South African born inventor now living in the US, compared it to the advent of the internet.“This mission heralds the dawn of a new era of space exploration, one in which there is a significant commercial space element,” he explained.  
 
“It is like the advent of the internet in the mid-1990s when commercial companies entered what was originally a government endeavour. That move dramatically accelerated the pace of advancement and made the internet accessible to the mass market. I think we’re at a similar inflection point for space. I hope and I believe that this mission will be historic in marking that turning point towards a rapid advancement in space transportation technology,” elaborated Musk.
 
NASA’s support
 
Musk made it clear though, that NASA’s involvement in the mission has been crucial, crediting the space agency for the birth of SpaceX, as well as enabling the company to reach this milestone, while also praising the company’s 1800 employees for “giving it their all.”
 
However, the occasion was auspicious for another reason as well. According to the Los Angeles Times, SpaceX's mission also marks the first test of NASA's plan to outsource space missions to private companies since it retired its space shuttles fleet.
 
Success of SpaceX’s mission would provide evidence to NASA that Falcon 9 and Dragon are up to hauling cargo – and ultimately astronauts – for the vaunted space agency.
 
To the point
 
With the right business model, we suspect and hope that in time this could herald the birth of commercial space travel for not only multimillionaires. Barring that lofty hope, it also portends a launch into unprecedented, uncharted terrain, where the ramifications of commercial space travel are as unimaginable as they are exciting.
 
If Musk’s comparisons to the birth of the internet are on course, then Dragon’s success this month may turn out to be a roar that is heard and remembered for decades to come.
  

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