Stepping up to the Challenge

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With the successful launch and recovery of its Dragon cargo capsule Dec. 8, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) has scored a pioneering success that goes a long way toward demonstrating the viability of commercializing logistics services for the international space station.

Since the dawn of the space age, recovering capsules from Earth orbit has been the exclusive province of governments; SpaceX is the first private company to accomplish that feat. Granted, SpaceX had a big financial assist from NASA, but that takes nothing from the fact that the company was able to execute Dragon’s on-orbit maneuvers and atmospheric re-entry — the latter an especially technically demanding task — and recover the capsule intact. It is almost an afterthought that the company’s Falcon 9 medium-lift rocket, which was making only its second flight, placed Dragon without a hitch into an orbit that was very close to what was planned.

SpaceX and NASA, which is counting on Dragon to make regular cargo-delivery runs to the space station starting late next year, will need time to analyze the data from this mission to verify the vehicle’s performance and its readiness to move on to the next, more demanding, demonstration under the agency’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Needless to say, it is far too soon to determine whether NASA should agree to combine the second and third COTS demonstrations into a single mission, as the company has proposed. While doing so likely would enable SpaceX to begin resupplying the space station sooner than would be possible otherwise, combining the mission entails risk in the fact that Dragon would approach and berth with the space station on only its second flight.

Even if post-mission analysis raises questions about Dragon’s performance on orbit and during re-entry, the capsule’s on-target splashdown and recovery in the Pacific Ocean speaks for itself. Space enthusiasts have long dreamed of the day when space operations of this sort become routine. That day is still a ways off, but SpaceX and NASA have unquestionably brought it closer.