By ANDY PASZTOR
Space pioneer Elon Musk hopes to put his name in the history books once again next week, with the planned launch and recovery of the first commercially-operated spacecraft from orbit.
But to reach this point, his closely-held company, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., already has managed to overcome regulatory hurdles never before encountered by the aerospace industry. And federal documents released on Friday underscore the bureaucratic complexities and huge technical risks confronting the pioneering effort
In June, SpaceX, as the company is known, launched its 18-story Falcon 9 rocket and successfully flew it for more than nine minutes. It was the first privately funded U.S. rocket launch in decades.
However, this week’s scheduled mission to launch and return an unmanned, reusable Dragon capsule from low-earth orbit, anticipated to last for hours, poses many more challenges. Placing the vehicle into a such an orbit at speeds exceeding 17,000 miles per hour, then maneuvering through a fiery reentry and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean will require a flawless trajectory, a reliable heat shield and finally, perfect operation of the redundant parachutes, according to space experts.
Based on a ground test completed Saturday, SpaceX said blastoff could occur as early as Tuesday.
In an October interview, Mr. Musk said “the likelihood of us getting everything right “may be no more than 50% on the first try. Considering the difficulties of both the launch and the reentry, he said, in the end “the chance of mission success may be less than that.”
In addition to the stakes for SpaceX, the flight will amount to a unique public test of President Barack Obama’s controversial effort to use NASA to fund and nurture a variety of such commercial spacecraft.
The policy continues to face opposition from many lawmakers, established aerospace contractors and even some Air Force officials worried about relying too heavily on untested private rockets and spacecraft to replace the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s retiring fleet of space shuttles.
But a successful reentry would propel Mr. Musk, a former Internet entrepreneur who has invested more than $100 million of his personal fortune in the scrappy startup, further into the lead for such ventures.
On Friday, the Federal Aviation Administration disclosed the legal justifications and complex risk analyses it used in issuing final approvals for the capsule’s first demonstration flight. The agency, which ended up issuing a waiver for the projected risks of the flight, is responsible for protecting residents and buildings along the flight path.
The FAA eventually determined that in the event of a catastrophic failure or decision to destroy either the rocket or the capsule, the likely combined risk of casualties from debris would meet all legal safety requirements. The agency initially computed the total risk to be greater than allowed by law, prompting SpaceX to belatedly ask for reconsideration and seek to reassure FAA officials.
According to SpaceX, built-in safeguards include automatic features designed to ensure that the capsule will land safely or burn up completely in the atmosphere if critical safety components such as heat shields, thrusters and navigation systems malfunction. Ground controllers will be able to check the status of the capsule and, if necessary, abort the return.
In its formal decision, the FAA said the capsule’s “risk mitigation measures” include extra onboard propellant to steer clear of populated areas and three separate parachutes, although only one parachute “is necessary for a low impact landing.”
Over the weekend, a spokeswoman said that “as the first company in history to receive a license to reenter a spacecraft from orbit,” SpaceX is “focused on making dramatic advances in the reliability and safety of space transportation.” She said “that puts us in the position of being the test case for regulations written years ago.”
SpaceX plans to use an unmanned Dragon capsule on top of the same type of rocket, featuring nine separate liquid oxygen and kerosene-burning engines, to start delivering cargo to the international space station in the next few years. The company has scheduled two more demonstration flights before a $1.6-billion NASA contract is slated to kick in to supply the station with cargo.
By relying on and adding to the advanced technology installed in the Dragon capsule, the company eventually also hopes to transport astronauts to the station and later, perhaps deeper into space. Congress, however, is poised to substantially scale back White House proposals to fund manned commercial-space projects.
NASA has awarded other commercial cargo-delivery or spacecraft-development contracts, but SpaceX appears to be the farthest along in devising ways to build and fly civilian space vehicles for the government.
The earliest test flight of a rival Lockheed Martin Corp. space capsule–though one intended to be operated by NASA and designed from the outset to carry astronauts deeper into space—is slated for 2013 at the earliest.
The upcoming SpaceX flight comes after nearly a year of industry turmoil and Congressional debate over NASA’s future direction. Agency chief Charles Bolden, who has championed the concept of commercially-built and operated spacecraft, has said that “a lot of the controversy comes from people who are nervous about doing new things.”
But large portions of NASA’s bureaucracy, along with many established NASA contractors, continue to balk at relying largely on SpaceX hardware or other commercial-space ventures to access the space station. It will take SpaceX a number of years, an perhaps more than $1 billion, to develop safety features allowing the Dragon to carry at least four astronauts into orbit. Without robust federal funding, Mr. Musk’s company is likely to face major difficulties in developing and testing those safeguards.
Write to Andy Pasztor at email@example.com
While I am not a fan of Barack Obama in ANY sense of the word, I can be reasonable about it too. I want to ask the question, “Just WHY should NASA be allowed to continue it’s tax-payer-funded monopoly over space transportation for the NEXT 50 years?” Surely it can’t be true that there are simply NO brains left amongst the general public in America that could design, build and operate commercial spacecraft, and even compete amongst themselves to provide relatively safe commercial space transportation for our nation outside of the fences of NASA. Such thinking would be like the U.S. Military and the DOT being the only people who could provide air, ship or , train or truck transportation to meet the needs of the nation.
Of course, it has NOT escaped me that NASA’s stated mission has drastically changed over the years, it’s “prime directive” now being to be more of a P.R. firm aimed at Muslim countries and their scientific communities. What the heck, maybe they’ll provide them with information about space travel that they will need to do what radical Muslims truly want to do, which is to take over the world, while eliminating anyone who would not join them.
Here’s a little quote from WikiPedia:
“The National Aeronautics and Space Act (Pub.L. 85-568) is the United States federal statute that created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The Act, which followed close on the heels of the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, was drafted by the United States House Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration and on July 29, 1958 was signed by President Eisenhower. Prior to enactment, the responsibility for space exploration was deemed primarily a military venture, in line with the Soviet model that had launched the first orbital satellite. In large measure, the Act was prompted by the lack of response to that military infrastructure that seemed incapable of keeping up the space race.
In addition to the creation of NASA, the previously created National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, a military-based tribunal, was converted into an independent advisory panel reporting directly to the president. The Act also created a Civilian-Military Advisory Panel, based thereafter at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California that would advise and coordinate the military uses of space. To this day, the United States has coordinated but separate military and civilian space programs, with much of the former involved in launching military and surveillance craft and, prior to the Partial Test Ban Treaty, planning counter-measures to the anticipated Soviet launch of nuclear warheads into space.
In addition, the new law made extensive modifications to the patent law and provided that both employee inventions as well as private contractor innovations brought about through space travel would be subject to government ownership. By making the government the exclusive provider of space transport, the act effectively discouraged the private development of space travel. This situation endured until the law was modified by the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984, enacted to allow civilian use of NASA systems in launching space vehicles.”