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The Flight Of The Dragon

On June 4, 2010 the Falcon 9 was successfully launched from Florida. All that remained was testing the spacecraft, which took place on December 8, 2010. The Dragon spent about three hours in orbit before safely landing in the Pacific. Mr. Musk could not allow the spacecraft to be launched without a payload, so he put a small satellite onboard "in the interests of the Defense Department."
by Konstantin Bogdanov
Moscow, Russia (RIA Novosti) Dec 13, 2010
Last Wednesday, at 18:55 GMT, a space capsule opened the typical orange-and-white landing parachutes above the Pacific, 500 miles off the coast of Mexico. But there was nothing else typical about the event. This was the first working prototype of the Dragon spacecraft developed by SpaceX, a private American space transportation company.

It was yet another sign that governments are rapidly losing their hegemony over space technology.

A space start-up
The founder and CEO of SpaceX is Elon Musk, a prominent player in the U.S. information economy. Among other things, he co-founded PayPal, the popular e-payment system. When Musk started his latest endeavor, space was becoming trendy. Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, was funding the SpaceShipOne project, an air-launched suborbital plane. But Elon Musk took a more serious approach to the idea of private space travel.

SpaceX uses its own Falcon 9 launch system, which is available in two versions, including for heavy-lifts. The company also developed its own Merlin engines and Dragon spacecraft capable of carrying seven passengers or six tons of cargo into orbit.

In 2009, SpaceX was awarded a $1.6-billion NASA contract to deliver supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). The space shuttle program has come to an end, and a replacement is needed. But the current U.S. space program - consisting of the Ares launcher and Orion spacecraft - is in a deplorable state, to put it mildly. These circumstances have given Musk's start-up a fairly good chance of success.

On June 4, 2010 the Falcon 9 was successfully launched from Florida. All that remained was testing the spacecraft, which took place on December 8, 2010. The Dragon spent about three hours in orbit before safely landing in the Pacific. Mr. Musk could not allow the spacecraft to be launched without a payload, so he put a small satellite onboard "in the interests of the Defense Department."

In orbit
Strictly speaking, what SpaceX is now doing cannot be called private space travel. Private customers are still in short supply in a space market that is dominated by government space agencies. The space market resembles a monopsony - a market in which there is only one buyer.

The lifeblood of SpaceX is the NASA contract to deliver supplies to the ISS. And this fact undermines the corporation's claims to be a private initiative. Boeing and Lockheed Martin have been building spacecraft for NASA for decades, but no one ever called this private space exploration. So, what sets Musk's business apart?

The difference is Musk is the first private investor to wholly own a functional launcher plus landing capsule.

With Lockheed Martin and Boeing, it is the government that owns the space systems, even if they are designed and built by private companies. SpaceX is the first fully independent, private designer and operator on the market.

Naturally, SpaceX is still largely dependent on the infrastructure built by the government, especially the launch facilities. SpaceX lacks the resources to build its own launch center. But you never know - if the market for space launches and transportation starts growing rapidly, it won't be long before private spaceports start to appear.

The SpaceX system is in direct competition with Russia's Proton rockets for commercial cargo deliveries and with its Soyuz rockets for transporting astronauts to the ISS. This could spell serious trouble for the well financed but extremely sluggish Russian space program.

Ten years on, Russia's promising Angara launch vehicle, which is to replace the Protons, still has not had its first flight yet. Little is known about the new launch system for the planned Vostochny space center, which is to be built in the Amur Region.

Most likely, it will be a variation on the Rus-M rocket project. In any case, this is all still in the preliminary stage. The same is true for the manned space vehicle for Vostochny. The Prospective Piloted Transport System has only been outlined on paper.

The people at the top of the Russian space industry believe that at the current pace the first unmanned launch from the Vostochny will take place in 2015, while the first manned flight has been cautiously slated for "2018 at the earliest."

That gives us eight years. It should be noted that eight years ago Elon Musk had nothing but a dream and some start-up capital that was absolutely insufficient to make a commercially viable business.

Countdown to blastoff
Musk has some seriously ambitious plans. The news conference following the capsule's successful splashdown included talk about the company's future prospects. The flights to the ISS appears to be a foregone conclusion for SpaceX. The company announced plans to design a next generation shuttle with braking engines and "legs."

Musk also hinted at the news conference that the capsule's thermal protection cover performed wonderfully and could theoretically withstand re-entry after a flight to the Moon.

To be sure, there is some youthful arrogance in all this. But this provides a sense, at least, of the atmosphere, the engineering ambition, the high morale and the enthusiasm at the company.

The SpaceX staff is so full of confidence that they manually evened out cracked engine nozzles with an ordinary grinder and snips right on the launch pad.

This is brazen recklessness and negligence of safety rules - at least in the opinion of much more experienced and conservative leaders in the space industry, who accidentally pumped a booster rocket with a ton and a half of extra fuel, condemning three satellites to a watery grave in the Pacific. Meanwhile, the space vehicle whose engines were repaired in such a primitive manner successfully splashed down in the Pacific.

So, will this upstart start-up make it? All we can do is guess, but we should remember that over these eight years the SpaceX crew has stood strong in the face of withering public ridicule.

"Dot-coms are dead, so now he will be laundering money," joked some 'knowledgeable' skeptics when Musk announced he was setting up the company. "Dream on!" they scoffed when the company unveiled large-scale plans to design a launch system.

"I'm sure it all works great on paper," they said dismissively when they saw blueprints of the launcher and the space vehicle.

"This hunk of metal won't fly," they said when the rocket was rolled out from the workshop to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. And until the successful landing on December 8, the latest derisive comment was: "First let's see if they can get the capsule back."

Well, now they have it back. "How many more times do you need to see this to believe?" a character once asked on the sci-fi show the X-Files.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

Source: RIA Novosti



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