10 years ago, one SpaceX launch showed NASA they could work with Elon Musk

Ten years ago, on May 22, 2012, Elon Musk’s SpaceX made history. The company became the fourth entity, after the United States, Russia, and China, to launch a spacecraft into orbit and, on May 31 of that year, return it to Earth. This achievement fundamentally changed the course of the next decade of space exploration.

That mission, Dragon C2/3, was also the first commercial spacecraft to dock with another spacecraft in orbit – the International Space Station, in the case of SpaceX, on May 24, 2012. It is also the first commercial spacecraft to return cargo to Earth.

At the time, Musk stated in a press conference: “This mission heralds the dawn of a new era of space exploration, in which there is an important commercial space element.”

He was right. Dennis Stone, a commercial spaceflight executive at NASA who was directly involved, says the mission “heralds a new age of commercial space services”.

These achievements solidify SpaceX’s position as NASA’s exclusive partner to launch crew and cargo to the International Space Station. But it also sparked a debate about public and private partnerships for space science that is still going on today.

Why NASA turned to SpaceX

Since 1981, NASA’s Space Shuttle Program has been responsible for transporting people and cargo to and from space – but in 2011 the Space Shuttle will retire. To send people and cargo into space, NASA needed a new, cost-effective way to keep the ISS and other near-Earth space research and exploration running without paying for a space shuttle.

In preparation for the end of the Space Shuttle, NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transport Service began in 2006 with an investment in SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation – now Northrop Grumman – has explained, Stone explained. cargo capacity to and from Low Earth Orbit”.

“Each company has developed a launch vehicle and a cargo spacecraft that can arrive and dock with the International Space Station.”

Later, NASA awarded one of the first Commercial Resupply Services contracts to SpaceX. These flights include individual NASA-funded flights to deliver cargo to the ISS by commercially operated spacecraft.

SpaceX has been awarded $1.6 billion for twelve of the company’s partially reusable cargo spacecraft: the Dragon. The dragons were propelled into orbit by SpaceX’s flagship rocket, the Falcon 9.

Flying Dragon

The first time Dragon took to the skies – in December 2010 – also marked the first COTS and CRS launches. On this first mission, the second launch of Falcon 9, Dragon entered orbit – a first for commercial spacecraft. But entry didn’t go so smoothly: The Dragon Ship disintegrated on its way back to Earth before its parachute could be activated.

“Coming this far so quickly is a remarkable achievement,” said Phil McAlister, acting director of NASA’s Commercial Space Flight Development.

“No matter how this flight turns out, we remain committed to this program.”

The next SpaceX missions are given a combined name: Dragon C2 / 3. The name of the test flight itself is testament to the success of the partnership between SpaceX and NASA so far. – originally conceived as two separate test flights, the agency decided to put them on a single mission.

Before they were rolled into one, SpaceX’s Dragon C2 was first supposed to practice movements and communications for a final rendezvous with the ISS. The space capsule will then return to Earth from orbit – hopefully a piece. The second mission, Dragon C3, is to check if Dragon can dock at the ISS as planned.

Between July and December 2011, NASA cut back on the chase and approved Dragon C2/3.

The mission “proved a new model for investing in commercial capabilities that can be shared by government and private sector clients,” Stone said.

Then, after a series of delays, Dragon C2/3 was finally launched on May 22, 2012. It docked at the ISS on May 24, 2012 – becoming the first commercial ship to dock. dock with another ship in space.

“This not only saves NASA money, but it also stimulates the growth of a strong commercial space industry in the US,” adds Stone. (Stone notes that “a few days ago, Boeing successfully demonstrated that it could reach the ISS with a crewed spacecraft and will therefore join SpaceX in providing crewed services.” commerce to and from the ISS.”)

NASA’s Commercial Future

The mission was a resounding success. A 2017 cost assessment by NASA analyst Edgar Zapata clearly states: “The development of COTS and subsequently the Commercial Resupply Service (CRS) in operation are significant advances in capabilities. pay by any measure.”

To understand why contracting for flights to SpaceX makes so much more sense, consider a separate analysis by NASA engineer Harry Jones conducted in 2018. It shows the cost of NASA’s Space Shuttle is exorbitant – launching a kilogram of matter into space costs $54,500, Jones estimates. SpaceX has reduced that to $2,720 per kilogram using the Falcon 9.

Both analyzes confirm that as NASA undertakes more missions into deep space, the cost reductions will prove invaluable given the growing need for space infrastructure. But conversely, the commercial sector also seems to need government support – or at least, Elon Musk did so after his 2012 launch.

“I’d like to start by saying it’s been a great honor to work with NASA,” Musk said in a post-flight press conference posted on the National Space Association’s website.

“And admittedly, we could not have started SpaceX, nor would we have gotten to this point without the help of NASA.”

SpaceX competes for dominance

But the involvement of commercial entities like SpaceX in helping NASA achieve its scientific goals has met with some resistance. Russia used to be the main source of transportation for astronauts to the ISS – and they weren’t happy about the lost business. NASA used Russian Soyuz spacecraft at a cost of $86 billion per seat, by 2020 Forbes report.

The main concern, according to Russia, is that the SpaceX Dragon capsule does not meet the safety standards of Roscosmos (Russian space agency), according to a Denver Post stories from the times.

At the time, Keith Cowing (former NASA employee and editor of the American space blog NASA Watch) suspected that Russia wanted to monopolize space transportation with its Soyuz spacecraft.

Regardless of Russia’s motives for reluctance to see SpaceX and NASA work together, the success of Dragon C2/3 has laid the groundwork for a rapid expansion in commercial space technology.

Originally conceived as an unmanned capsule, the Dragon capsule is now crewed and increasingly cost-effective, rivaling Russia’s Soyuz as the primary means of transport for astronauts. to the ISS. According to one report, the cost of an entire Dragon spacecraft launch was $55 million. To date, there have been 23 Dragon launches.

Now, ten years after the fateful launch of Dragon C2/3, the partnership between NASA and commercial companies is growing. During the same press conference after the launch of Dragon C2/3, Musk suggested that the mission is the beginning of an era of advancing technological progress.

“It’s like the birth of the Internet in the mid-1990s when commercial companies entered what was initially a government effort,” he said.

“That move dramatically accelerated development and made the Internet accessible to the mass market. I think we’re at a similar inflection point with respect to space. I hope and I believe this mission will be historic as it marks a turning point towards rapid advancement in space transport technology.”

https://www.inverse.com/science/space-x-anniversary-dragon-c23 10 years ago, one SpaceX launch showed NASA they could work with Elon Musk

Emma James

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