FAA Clears SpaceX Dragon Demonstration

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WASHINGTON — After more than a year-and-a-half of review, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Nov. 22 granted Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) the license it needs to launch a cargo capsule into space and have it re-enter the atmosphere for recovery at sea.

“Today the FAA has made SpaceX the first-ever commercial company to receive a license to re-enter a spacecraft from orbit,” Kirstin Brost, a spokeswoman for Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX, said in a Nov. 22 statement.

SpaceX is expected to launch its Dragon cargo capsule atop its Falcon 9 rocket Dec. 7 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., in the first of three increasingly complex missions to be conducted under a $278 million Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement with NASA. The company is on the hook to begin regular resupply runs to the international space station starting next year under a separate, fixed-price contract valued at $1.6 billion.

The Falcon 9 rocket has flown once successfully with a qualification unit of the Dragon onboard. On the upcoming COTS mission, the full-fledged Dragon capsule is expected to complete up to four Earth orbits, transmit telemetry data, receive commands, maneuver, re-enter the atmosphere and make a safe water landing in the Pacific Ocean for recovery.

“This will be the first attempt by a commercial company to recover a spacecraft reentering from low-Earth orbit,” Brost said in the statement. “It is a feat performed by only 6 nations or governmental agencies: the United States, Russia, China, Japan, India, and the European Union.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden lauded the FAA’s first commercial re-entry license in a Nov. 22 statement.

“With this license in hand, SpaceX can proceed with its launch of the Dragon capsule,” Bolden said. “The flight of Dragon will be an important step toward commercial cargo delivery to the International Space Station. NASA wishes SpaceX every success with the launch.”

SpaceX’s original COTS agreement with NASA called for the first demonstration of Falcon 9 and Dragon to occur in September 2008, but development of the hardware has taken longer than planned. In the second half of this year alone, the company has postponed a half-dozen target dates for the mission.

The FAA license is valid for one year from the date of issue, Brost said. The FAA approved the launch part of the upcoming mission Oct. 15.