Dec 14, 2010

Good for SpaceX, good for all

In a big year for space exploration, the first ever successful return of privately owned spacecraft from orbit has probably slipped unfairly under the mainstream media radar.

What with asteroid exploration, water on the Moon, habitable planets and solar storms to contend with, a three-hour orbit and subsequent spalshdown of an unmanned capsule might seem relatively ho-hum in 2010.

But for private space exploration companies, the success of SpaceX's Falcon 9 booster and launch and retrieval of the Dragon capsule last week could be just the spark the fledgling industry needs.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has put his money where his mouth is, and he's got a lot of it, having also founded PayPal and Tesla Motors.

He started SpaceX with $100 million of it in 2002, recognising the ability of privateers to deliver low-cost solutions for space agencies, claiming most of the savings would come from cutting bureaucratic expenses.

Eight years and $2.4 billion in NASA contracts later, Musk is doubling his workforce every year to keep up with the demand.

Obviously, it helps if you've got a couple of billion under your belt to play with, but any success of any private organisation is good news for the industry as a whole.

If SpaceX continues its run of successes, confidence in privateers grows. With that comes increased opportunities for other privateers as space agencies around the world recognise the benefits of contracting out almost every aspect of their space programs.

Confidence at SpaceX is growing, too. "This has really been better than I expected," Musk said after the retrieval. "It's actually almost too good."

Universe Today reports they're so pleased with Dragon's success that they're keen to skip several demonstration flights of its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) vehicle and aim straight at the International Space Station. Their biggest NASA contract is a 12-mission one to carry supplies to the ISS as soon as the space shuttle program is wound up in April next year. NASA's reportedly a touch nervous about SpaceX's enthusiasm to get on with the job, but maybe they won't have a choice.

It's pure coincidence, but the irony of SpaceX's success at the same time the space shuttle Discovery was being pulled off the launch pad due to a string of failed attempts to fix cracks associated with its fuel tanks won't be lost on NASA and other government space agencies around the world watching on.

The success of SpaceX is exactly that - it's success. Musk's team continue to deliver while others fall by the wayside. The supply of contracts for the COTS program turned into something of a debacle, with several teams that won initial contracts - big contracts - losing them after failing to secure sufficient private backing.

In March, the other team left to share the COTS contract with SpaceX, Orbital, will launch its Cygnus spacecraft with the Taurus II rocket.

They might be the competition for anyone trying to crack the private space industry, but here's hoping they can replicate the achievements of Musk and Co. It's not like there's not enough space to go around out there.

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