Nearly a half-century ago, when U.S. President John F. Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” he inspired a space program and a nation to do historic things.
Soon, perhaps as early as this week, a very different kind of hard but historic thing in spaceflight is going to take place, and in full public view. It’s the inaugural test flight of the Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) Dragon capsule for NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.
With this launch, for the first time, a commercial company is going to attempt to loft a spacecraft that is capable of on-orbit maneuvering, rendezvous and docking, and cargo transfer, followed by deorbiting, re-entering and landing back on Earth with cargo brought back from space. Once perfected, this system will enable the post-shuttle cargo logistics resupply of the international space station (ISS) by the United States. It also will bring us much closer to commercially developed crew capsules capable of taking people to and from the ISS and other destinations in low Earth orbit on our own, without Soyuz.
SpaceX, of course, isn’t alone in this endeavor. Before long, Orbital Sciences Corp. will be demonstrating its capsule, Cygnus, for similar COTS missions. When both Cygnus and Dragon are operational, the United States will have a highly robust, multipronged domestic logistics system for supplying cargo to and returning cargo from the station, enhancing our ISS investment for years to come.
But before we can have this reliable and robust post-shuttle cargo service, Dragon and Cygnus must prove themselves in test flights.
SpaceX already has proved part of its COTS system by developing and demonstrating an impressive success in its first Falcon 9 launch in June. But the first flight of Dragon is a still tougher challenge requiring both the successful second flight of the Falcon 9 rocket and the successful first flight of Dragon, a complex new spacecraft in its own right. Coldly evaluating the challenges that this first Dragon mission has before it, any informed observer must conclude that there are numerous risks, and that the odds of a success are manifestly less than certain.
It has been said that a ship is safe in harbor, but a harbor is not where ships belong. If SpaceX doesn’t fully succeed in its first try with Dragon, there will be disappointment, and some may even question NASA’s wisdom in undertaking the COTS program. Others may question the ability of the American aerospace industry to undertake such a complex task as ISS cargo resupply. Still others may once again beat the anti-space commercialization drum.
But such a failure would not be damning. Instead, I think, most of us — whether inside or outside NASA, whether inside or outside the commercial space community, and whether inside or outside the human spaceflight community — would recognize the difficulty of the task at hand. Most of us would bear with SpaceX and later Orbital Sciences as they perfect their rockets and capsules through further ground and space testing. Most of us would also, I think, cheer these teams and NASA on to subsequent flights and ultimate success.
President Kennedy’s words are still apt, and they still stir, for doing new things in space is never easy — it is always hard. Back in Kennedy’s era, the failures of the first six lunar Ranger missions, the flight-terminating malfunction of Gemini 8 and the tragic loss of Apollo 1 with a crew aboard during a prelaunch ground test were setbacks and embarrassments. But perseverance prevailed — and Ranger, Gemini and Apollo are all seen today as successes in space history.
If there are failures in the early COTS demonstration flights, NASA and its COTS companies will come back with improved systems and, like others before them in spaceflight, redouble their efforts to become a success.
They have to do this. They must! The rewards for the ISS program, the fledgling commercial space industry and the American taxpayer are too great to do otherwise. And that success will provide the United States with a dramatic leap over other nations’ capabilities, extending U.S. leadership in space at a time when rivals are proliferating.
As President Kennedy also said, “Now it is time to take longer strides — time for a great new American enterprise — time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement.”
The inaugural COTS launch that SpaceX is about to undertake is just such a longer stride.
So here’s to the new generation of Americans who are taking risks in the service of a new form of space leadership, and a better future ahead!
Godspeed, Falcon. Godspeed, Dragon.
S. Alan Stern is an aerospace consultant and former NASA associate administrator in charge of science. He is the chairman of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation’s Suborbital Applications Researchers Group.