Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s supply ship successfully blasted off for the International Space Station yesterday in what company founder Elon Musk said was like a Super Bowl victory.
While the closely held company would make history by becoming the first to park a commercial vehicle at the station. it’s not there yet. The next big challenge comes tomorrow, when the unmanned craft must fly by the lab as part of an ultimate driver’s test that involves speeding up, slowing down and parallel parking.
Only after completing those maneuvers will it be allowed to dock, which is scheduled to take place at 11:05 a.m. New York time on May 25. Astronauts would then open the hatch and unload the test cargo of more than 1,000 pounds of food, clothing and lab equipment.
“There’s still a thousand things that have to go right,” Alan Lindenmoyer, commercial crew and cargo program manager for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said yesterday during a post-launch news conference.
SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket, carrying the Dragon capsule, at 3:44 a.m. yesterday from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in its second attempt to send the vehicle to the space station. It called off a May 19 liftoff with a half second left in the countdown because of a faulty engine valve.
“The significance of this day cannot be overstated,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said afterward in a separate media briefing at Cape Canaveral.
“We’re handing off to the private sector our transportation to the International Space Station so that NASA can focus on what we do best: Exploring even deeper into our solar system with missions to an asteroid and Mars on the horizon,” he said.
Whether SpaceX and the private sector are ready for the handoff isn’t a given.
One of the critical remaining maneuvers is berthing, a kind of vertical parallel parking that joins the craft with the space station, where a crew of six astronauts will be waiting. The U.S. has invested about $50 billion in the station, which was completed last year and is scheduled to operate at least through 2020.
Berthing involves “extreme precision,” SpaceX said in a press release last week. Both the ship and station will be traveling at about 17,500 miles per hour and orbiting Earth once every 90 minutes.
“There’s a good chance that we don’t successfully dock with the space station,” Musk said in an interview that aired yesterday on Bloomberg Television. “I think our odds of success are probably around 60 to 70 percent.”
The test maneuver calls for the supply ship to approach the station from below, retreat, then approach again to about 30 feet. At that point, astronaut Don Pettit, with help from colleague Andre Kuipers, will grab the craft with a 60-foot-long robotic arm, pull it in and attach it to the station.
“It is a very dynamic process with not a whole lot of signposts along the way,” James Oberg, a space consultant in Dickinson, Texas, and former mission control specialist for NASA, said in an interview yesterday. “You’ve got to navigate through trackless space and arrive at a small range with only a small speed.”
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An unmanned Russian craft in 1997 crashed into the former Mir space station, puncturing the hull and depressurizing a section of the station with three astronauts aboard, including one American, Oberg said.
The accident “almost caused the loss of the Mir and quite possibly the lives of the crew,” he said. “It’s memories like those that will make people pucker up during the final approach.”
A failure to complete the coupling with the space station may mean the company will have to launch again and re-do the test mission, designed to prove it can make regular deliveries.
If SpaceX has a failure “that we collectively think requires a lot of extra work and would actually benefit from another test flight, then we would go propose another test flight,” William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human explorations and operations at NASA, said during the post-launch press conference.
Success may ease concern that turning the space program over to the private sector is too risky, according to Michael Ciarmoli, an analyst with Cleveland-based KeyBanc Capital Markets Inc.
It would show that NASA “is making the wise investment in private- or commercial-based space companies,” Ciarmoli said in a telephone interview.
NASA retired the shuttle in July before companies such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. proved they could resupply the station. The Obama administration a year earlier canceled a program to develop a shuttle successor, saying the private sector would offer lower costs.
Only spacecraft developed by the governments of the U.S., Europe, Japan and Russia have docked with the station, which orbits about 240 miles above Earth.
Musk, a 40-year-old billionaire, watched yesterday’s flight from mission control at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California.
Later at the NASA press conference, Musk said the liftoff was a “tremendous elation.”
“For us, it’s like winning the Super Bowl,” he said.
SpaceX said in a press release last week that it has more than $4 billion in revenue under contract, including the government business and commercial sales.
SpaceX and Orbital have been awarded almost $700 million in combined NASA contracts to develop the ability to deliver cargo to the space station, and another $3.5 billion for 20 resupply missions scheduled to begin this fall.
Orbital, based in Dulles, Virginia, plans to launch its new Antares rocket for the first time, possibly in August, from a new launch pad near Wallops Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, said Barron Beneski, a company spokesman. It’s scheduled to deliver supplies to the space station with its Cygnus spacecraft by the end of the year as part of a test flight similar to SpaceX’s, he said.
While both companies may compete for business in the future, a SpaceX success would also benefit Orbital, according to Chris Quilty, senior vice president at Raymond James & Associates Inc., based in St. Petersburg, Florida.
“It’s basically a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats type of theory,” he said in an interview.