WASHINGTON — Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) is poised to begin full-fledged commercial operations following the successful launch and berthing of its cargo-carrying Dragon capsule to the international space station May 25.

The mission lends a strong dose of credibility to U.S. President Barack Obama’s controversial plan to commercialize astronaut crew transportation to and from low Earth orbit, as congressional critics of the strategy joined supporters in praising the company’s historic achievement. SpaceX is among several companies vying for NASA funding assistance to develop astronaut taxi services.

“After today, there are many more believers in commercial spaceflight than just an hour ago,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said while giving a speech at the International Space Development Conference here while the Dragon capture operation was under way.

Of more immediate importance, Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX should soon be cleared to begin making regular cargo deliveries to the space station under a fixed-price NASA contract valued at $1.6 billion. The company has already been advanced $336.7 million of that award.

SpaceX also is in position to receive the final $15 million installment of its $396 million Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement with NASA, which lays out a payment schedule based on completion of development and demonstration milestones.

NASA has invested about $800 million in SpaceX to date. The vast majority of that is for cargo work.

Not all has gone as planned on the SpaceX COTS program. For one thing, SpaceX achieved the berthing milestone 32 months later than originally planned, even after it was able to persuade NASA to combine the objectives of the second and third COTS demonstrations into a single flight.

Moreover, the COTS program has cost NASA more than originally expected. SpaceX’s original COTS agreement, signed in 2006, called for $278 million in payments for a three-flight demonstration program culminating in the berthing at station; NASA ultimately wound up contributing an additional $118 million for a two-flight program.

But cost growth and delays are typical of space development programs, and there was no indication of dissatisfaction from SpaceX’s biggest customer: the U.S. government.

In a statement issued after the berthing May 25, the president’s top science adviser, John P. Holdren, called the event “an achievement of historical and scientific and technological significance” that will help maintain U.S. leadership in space.

“That is exactly what the President had in mind when he laid out a fresh course for NASA to explore new scientific frontiers and take Americans even deeper into our solar system while relying on private-sector innovators — working in the competitive free market — to ferry astronauts and cargo to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station,” Holdren said. “It’s essential we maintain such competition and fully support this burgeoning and capable industry to get U.S. astronauts back on American launch vehicles as soon as possible.”


Dragon Put Through Paces

In the space of about three days — three days, six hours and 11 minutes, to be exact — SpaceX launched Dragon to orbit aboard its Falcon 9 rocket and sent the capsule on a series of automated flight maneuvers beneath and around the international space station. Dragon then crept to within 10 meters of the orbital complex to be captured by the station’s robotic arm, which was controlled by astronaut Don Pettit.

“There’s reason to doubt we would succeed because there is not a lot of precedents for what we’ve done,” Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of SpaceX, said during a press briefing held about an hour after Dragon’s berthing. “I think those reasons no longer remain, having done today what we have done. I’m hoping that a lot of people’s doubts have been put to rest.”

The Dragon’s capture by the space station’s robotic arm was delayed almost two hours because of difficulties with the capsule’s laser imaging detection and ranging, or LIDAR, system. The LIDAR, which SpaceX calls Dragon Eye, picked up stray reflections from the station’s Japanese-built Kibo module, which interfered with positioning calculations required for proximity operations. SpaceX engineers narrowed the LIDAR system’s field of view and tried the rendezvous again, this time successfully. Pettit grappled the craft at 9:56 a.m. Eastern time and berthed it to the station shortly thereafter.

At press time, Dragon, which launched full of food and water, was scheduled to depart from the station May 31 with a load of return cargo. SpaceX will have to recover the spacecraft, which is to splash down in the Pacific Ocean later that day, and complete post-mission reviews with NASA before it can begin regular cargo runs.

Michael Suffredini, NASA’s international space station program manager, said at the May 25 press briefing that SpaceX’s first commercial cargo delivery is now scheduled for September.

The final COTS mission marked the third time Falcon 9 has flown to space. Its maiden flight in June 2010 was followed that December by Dragon’s first trip to orbit. The Dragon flown on that mission lacked much of the hardware demonstrated on the latest flight, including:

  • Two eight-panel, folding solar arrays mounted on Dragon’s unpressurized cargo “trunk.”
  • The Dragon Eye LIDAR, which enables the capsule to gauge distances and is crucial to autonomous rendezvous with the space station.
  • A thermal imager, which helps the capsule locate the space station based on the heat it throws off. Those data are cross-checked with optical data gathered by Dragon Eye to aid in spacecraft positioning during station approach.
  • An “Absolute GPS” system, which uses the U.S. GPS satellite navigation constellation to determine the capsule’s location relative to the Earth.
  • A two-way UHF communications package built with off-the-shelf components that astronauts aboard the space station use to send commands to Dragon during capture and berthing.
  • An S-band antenna to relay data back to Earth via NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite system.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.