When a thirty-year program like the Space Transportation System, the space shuttle, comes to an end, it’s difficult not to focus on the past. Looking back into history, reflecting on accomplishments, failures, and missed opportunities is only natural. It’s part of what we do as human beings. But it’s also deeply embedded in human nature to look to the future.
For NASA and human space exploration, a big part of the immediate future is the handoff of Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) missions to the commercial sector. To paraphrase the point that Launch manager Mike Moses made during the STS-135 post-launch news conference, humans have been going into LEO for more than fifty years. We understand it well, and it’s a straightforward exercise to write the design specifications for LEO missions. It’s time for NASA to let others take up this aspect of spaceflight. And so NASA is overseeing Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS).
Last weekend on the Space Coast, we had the opportunity to see a part of that future in the form of the SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) Dragon capsule. This particular spacecraft was launched empty (all right, almost empty), or unmanned in NASA vernacular, on December 8, 2010. Dragon successfully orbited the earth twice. This event marked the first time that anyone other than a nation had launched and recovered from space a space capsule designed to hold human beings. (Dragon is designed to hold as many as seven crew, but that looks like a very cozy ride to us.)
When we saw it on display at SpaceX headquarters just outside Patrick Air Force Base at Cape Canaveral, Dragon certainly seemed used, with some hatches and covers (particularly those covers that shield the parachutes and their lines) missing from its surface. Its bottom heat shield showed signs of the intense fires that greet spacecraft as they return to earth. And yet, it didn’t seem particularly worse for the wear.
Having seen a number of returned Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules at museums around the country, it’s easy to come away with the impression that they were one-time use spacecraft. It’s hard to imagine the work that would have to go into them to send them back into space. But the Dragon capsule is designed to be reusable, and it looks it. Touch up the paint, reload the parachutes and the pyrotechnics, slather high-tech foam goo into the cracks, and Voilà! It’ll soon be time to head back into space. Okay, it’s probably not that straightforward, but you can look at the Dragon capsule and at least get the sense that it’s possible to return it to space.
And that’s just what SpaceX wants to do. The next planned mission is a fly-by of the International Space Station (ISS) that will, if all goes well, keep Dragon up for five days. After that, the idea is to mate with ISS and take over the role NASA has played in resupply of that global project.