CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — All eyes may be on Atlantis and the end of the Space Shuttle program this week, but commercial rocket startup SpaceX is continuing its push to deliver the goods.
In this case the push involves not only the successful delivery of cargo to the International Space Station later this fall, but also convincing skeptics that SpaceX’s cut-rate prices don’t come at the cost of reliability or safety.
On a tour this week, SpaceX officials brought journalists through the company’s Cape Canaveral launch facility where the construction of a Falcon 9 rocket is nearing completion. Outside one of SpaceX’s plain warehouse buildings was a golf cart with a placard that read, “Falcon Rebel Base #1” — an example of the humor that comes with the disruptive dotcom culture that permeates the upstart rocket maker’s operation.
Today the company will also reach a key event in its production timeline when the rocket’s second stage engine arrives at Cape Canaveral. Later this summer the company’s Dragon cargo capsule will be delivered and loaded with supplies for the International Space Station.
NASA originally sought an additional test flight from SpaceX that would bring the Dragon capsule close to the station, but not too close.
“They wanted to take it in baby steps, but everything went so well with Dragon on the first flight, and we were arguing ‘your logistical needs are so great — what’s the problem with combining the flights?’ We meet all the milestones,” said Bobby Block, VP of Communications at SpaceX, adding that they are operating under the assumption that there will be cargo on the Dragon flight.
In December, SpaceX reached another milestone when it launched its Dragon capsule and retrieved it from the Pacific Ocean after two successful orbits. If NASA greenlights the cargo mission as expected, the capsule will move within range of the station’s robotic arm where it will be captured and attached to the station for unloading.
SpaceX hopes to have the rocket ready by September 30, but it will ultimately be up to NASA to decide when to actually launch it. Astronauts with Dragon training are due to arrive at the station later this winter on a Russian spacecraft. A news conference scheduled by NASA later Thursday may provide more information on upcoming plans.
Unlike NASA’s strict security guidelines that generally don’t allow the public or news media close access to operational spacecraft, SpaceX gave reporters tremendous leeway during Wednesday’s tour, at one point allowing photographers to crawl under the suspended rocket to take photographs.
Reporters were then transported over to SpaceX’s launch control center a few miles away. The center resembles a collegiate computer lab, lacking the dials and switches found in NASA control rooms. Instead, a dozen off-the-shelf HP computer workstations line the wall of the room — running Windows — and each provides data on various subsystems of the Falcon rocket. A similar facility in California takes over after the Falcon clears the launch tower.
Under a tent outside the launch control center on Wednesday was the Dragon capsule that flew the successful December flight. The paint is charred and chipped from its re-entry into the atmosphere, but the company reports the interior only reached about 71 degrees Fahrenheit at the height of its re-entry process.
This particular capsule was designed for cargo, but a crew version is in development for future manned flights. The crew version will have an escape system the company is developing to give future astronauts a chance to survive a catastrophic failure — something the Space Shuttle lacks. It will seat a maximum of seven astronauts, but it may not be as roomy as the shuttle.
“Compared to the Shuttle it’s going to be cramped,” said former NASA Astronaut Garret Reisman, now a SpaceX employee overseeing the development of the crew capsule. “Unlike the shuttle, this is designed for 48 hours and then you’re on station. When you’re going home, just a couple of hours and you’re on the ground. I’ve been in the back of a Ford Fiesta for longer than that!”
Reisman says the capsule is designed to be reusable, but NASA is asking that a fresh one be provided for each of the early cargo flights.
The stakes are high for both SpaceX and its biggest client. Mission success will build confidence not only from NASA, but many commercial satellite clients who are making multimillion dollar bets that the scrappy upstart can deliver.