CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA took a giant leap away from the spaceflight business Wednesday as a private company launched a spacecraft into orbit and for the first time guided it safely back to Earth, a feat previously achieved only by large national governments.
The capsule built by Space Exploration Technologies Inc. splashed down into the Pacific Ocean, right on target, following a three-hour mission that should pave the way for an actual flight to the International Space Station next summer.
NASA wants to enlist private companies to handle space station supply runs as well as astronaut rides after the shuttles stop flying next year. Until then, the space agency will have to continue paying tens of millions of dollars to the Russians for every American astronaut ferried back and forth.
Prior to Wednesday’s test flight, recovering a spacecraft re-entering from orbit was something achieved by only five independent nations: the United States, Russia, China, Japan and India, plus the European Space Agency, a consortium of countries.
NASA immediately offered up congratulations, as did astronauts, lawmakers, and aerospace organizations and companies.
“I’m sort of in semi-shock,” said the company’s CEO, Elon Musk. “It’s just mind-blowingly awesome. I apologize, and I wish I was more articulate, but it’s hard to be articulate when your mind’s blown – but in a very good way.”
Speaking from the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., Musk said his Falcon 9 rocket and the capsule named Dragon operated better than expected.
If astronauts had been on board, “they would have had a very nice ride,” Musk told reporters. “The vehicle that you saw today can easily transport people,” with the addition of escape and life-support systems.
The Dragon flown Wednesday – nearly 17 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter – was reminiscent of the NASA capsules of old, which ended their missions with ocean splashdowns.
Musk envisions that later models of the capsule, for crews, will be equipped for precision landings on patches of ground as small as a helipad.
This early version of the capsule circled the world twice, then parachuted into the Pacific. It splashed down roughly 500 miles off the Mexican coast, within a few miles of the targeted area. Recovery crews were quickly on the scene, putting floats on the spacecraft.
Musk raised his arms in victory when the three red-and-white-striped parachutes deployed. He knew then “it was a done deal.”
“This was done with 1,200 people,” Musk noted, versus the efforts of entire countries and their supporting industries.
The spacecraft carried thousands of patches for company employees; no official payload was required for this test. An Army nanosatellite hitched a ride on the upper stage of the 158-foot rocket in a technology demonstration.
If, after Wednesday’s success, any detractors still doubt the prospects for private spaceflight, Musk said, “I pity them … They would be fighting on the wrong side of yesterday’s war.”
This was the first flight under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, as well as the first flight of an operational Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX’s first flight of a Falcon 9 rocket, in June, carried a capsule mock-up that deliberately burned up on re-entry.
SpaceX intends to fly to the space station on its very next Dragon flight, targeted for next summer. Musk said he could be launching station crews within three years of getting the go-ahead from NASA.
NASA already is relying on Russia to ferry U.S. astronauts to and from the space station. It’s an expensive arrangement: $26 million per person this year, rising to $51 million next year, and to $56 million in 2013.
Ideally, NASA wants multiple companies to take over the job of cargo and crew transport, which would allow the agency to focus on deep-space travel to asteroids and to Mars.