May 31, 2012
If you haven't been following the evolution of the American space program over the past week, you have missed out on some historical events.
SpaceX, a company founded by PayPal creator Elon Musk, became the first private organization to launch a rocket, dock a capsule with the International Space Station and return it safely to Earth.
This mission, part of NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program, was a key first test as to whether private companies could handle the burden of launching cargo into space and bringing it back. At first the launch was delayed many times, including a unique situation in which the countdown was halted with a half second until liftoff.
A key safety improvement could have averted extreme failure. NASA's shuttles used two boosters with solid rocket fuel to get the shuttle up for about two minutes. The boosters could not be shut off once lit. With a half-second before countdown and the SpaceX Falcon rocket's engines actually igniting, a similar situation could've seen an explosion like Challenger, but this time without loss of life -- just a rocket and some supplies.
But May 22, an American spaceship lifted off on its way to the ISS for the first time since the final shuttle launch last year. The Falcon rocket's nine engines all lit and eventually put the Dragon capsule into space.
This was followed by some testing in orbit of the capsule and then the historical docking with the ISS. Thanks to this occurring near lunchtime instead of in the wee hours of the morning, I got to catch the live video of this on NASA's website. Quite a cool sight, and we even got a neat quote from NASA astronaut Don Pettit: "Houston, Station, it looks like we've got us a dragon by the tail."
Today's splashdown marked the end of a critical first mission, probably some nostalgia for those of you old enough to remember NASA splashdowns instead of touchdowns, and the slight vindication of a risk by our leaders. President Barack Obama signed off on ending the shuttle program and going an entirely new route with entrusting private companies to do shuttle-like activities -- basically exploration in Earth orbit -- and for NASA to, shall we say, boldly go where no men have gone before. With such a limited budget, NASA couldn't do both.
I was skeptical of this plan at first. I never really understood it because all we had known was government-run space programs in a few nations. Many veteran astronauts were unhappy with this plan.
Well, the full plan has not come to fruition yet, but we know a private company can put a cargo capsule in space and supply the ISS. SpaceX says it can send astronauts to the ISS in three years, while NASA is hoping to test its Space Launch System a few years later.
I think our space program is headed in the right direction. This new public-private partnership may be a spark for many new industries in our country now that space is not limited to budgets controlled by elected officials who may or may not know that a Dragon and Falcon are actual spacecraft components. Kudos to all of the hard workers involved in this endeavor, and I hope it's just the beginning of America's new age in space.