When the unmanned Dragon capsule built and launched by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) docked with the international space station in May, it delivered much more than a half-ton of food, clothes, batteries and other supplies to the trio of astronauts waiting there. The autonomous craft, launched three days earlier on what was only the third flight to date of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, also delivered a ton of credibility to NASA’s controversial plan to entrust the world’s $100 billion space station investment to commercial cargo and crew delivery services.
Dragon, a 4-ton spaceship designed and built in the same Hawthorne, Calif., facility where its Falcon 9 launcher came together — engines and all — is the first and so far the only privately built spacecraft to dock with the space station.
As much credit as SpaceX founder Elon Musk has deservedly received for putting his blood, sweat and tears into the venture, the fact is the 41-year-old South Africa native couldn’t have done it without the company’s steadfast president, Gwynne Shotwell, and a work force that now numbers about 1,800. This hardworking crew got a small taste of the public limelight when they surrounded their boss with a cheering section during what was one of the most rousing postmission press conferences in recent memory.
Dragon’s successful docking — or berthing, to be more precise — has begun changing the minds of some skeptics of U.S. President Barack Obama’s commercialization strategy for NASA’s human spaceflight program. The shifting sentiment was apparent in the postmission comments from many who had previously been critical of the strategy and of SpaceX.
Whether this trend continues depends on whether SpaceX can safely and reliably make a dozen paid cargo runs to the space station while challenging rocket maker United Launch Alliance’s virtual monopoly on U.S. government launches and bringing regular launches of commercial communications satellites back to the United States.
But the entire SpaceX team has already shown what the U.S. aerospace sector can accomplish without cost-plus contracts and heavy-handed government oversight.