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When Dragon made commercial spaceflight a reality

Charles Black, Founder and CEO of Sen
Dec 24, 2012, 8:00 UTC

Sen—2012 was the year of the Dragon - the first private spacecraft to deliver cargo supplies to the International Space Station. It took SpaceX, the privately owned space business founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk, just10 years to design and build Dragon, and the rocket which launched it.

In the last two years SpaceX has achieved a number of firsts. In June 2010 the company's Falcon 9 had its inaugural flight and became the first private rocket to reach orbit. In December 2010 Falcon 9 had its second launch, and this time its Dragon spacecraft separated from the rocket and entered orbital flight for the first time. After orbiting Earth twice it splashed down safely in the Pacific ocean and SpaceX became the first company to return a privately operated spaceship from orbit. Both 2010 flights were part of the testing phase of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Program under which NASA agreed to outsource space station deliveries to SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation (Orbital) subject to demonstrating their ability to do so safely. After establishing that it could put Dragon into orbit, and the spaceship's navigation worked, the next step was for Dragon to attempt to berth with the space station. That demonstration came in May this year, and in achieving the objectives set by NASA, SpaceX became the first private company to visit the ISS.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: SpaceX

Having proven its rocket and cargo ship capabilities under COTS, SpaceX was given the green light to begin supplies for real. The company had in its safe since 2008 a $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA for up to 12 resupply missions to the station, and in October 2012 Dragon completed its first mission under the agreement. Designated SpaceX CRS-1 the mission was successful at delivering several tonnes of fresh supplies to the orbiting outpost. Dragon returned to Earth in late October, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean and returning supplies from experiments and other hardware no longer needed aboard the ISS. Its ability to return goods is currently unique because all the other regular supply ships - Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), Japan's HTV (or "Kounotori") and Russia's Progress - all burn up during controlled re-entry.

Commenting on the success of the first resupply misison, NASA boss Charles Bolden declared: "Just a little over one year after we retired the Space Shuttle, we have completed the first cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station. Not with a government owned and operated system, but rather with one built by a private firm - an American company that is creating jobs and helping keep the U.S. the world leader in space as we transition to the next exciting chapter in exploration. Congratulations to SpaceX and the NASA team that supported them and made this historic mission possible."

Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX said: "This historic mission signifies the restoration of America's ability to deliver and return critical space station cargo."

Whilst SpaceX made history in 2012, another American company, Orbital Sciences Corporation (Orbital), has been working towards its demonstration flights under the COTS Program. NASA awarded Orbital an 8 mission CRS contract in 2008. Originally scheduled for late 2012, the first launch of Orbital's Antares rocket is now planned in early 2013, to be followed by a test flight of its Cygnus spacecraft.

Illustration of Orbital Sciences

Illustration of Orbital's Cygnus cargo ship at the ISS. Credit: Orbital Sciences

The third and final test for Orbital will be a demonstration mission to the ISS, like the one undertaken by SpaceX in May 2012. If testing goes according to plan, Orbital will then be cleared to begin cargo resupply missions. 

As for SpaceX, it will continue in 2013 with further supply missions, and continue building a crewed version of Dragon. Whilst human space flight aboard Dragon is a few years away, SpaceX has proved this year that a privately operated space company can deliver.