SpaceX: First commercial firm to launch and recover LEO spacecraft

The Falcon 9 launch vehicle carried the Dragon spacecraft into low-Earth orbit on Dec. 8; the Dragon orbited the Earth and re-entered the atmosphere and landed in the Pacific Ocean.

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On Dec. 8, 2010, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX, Hawthorne, Calif.) became the first commercial company in history to launch a spacecraft into low-Earth orbit (LEO) and then successfully accomplish atmospheric re-entry and recovery. The company launched its Dragon spacecraft into LEO atop a Falcon 9 rocket at 10:43 a.m. EST from Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. The Dragon spacecraft orbited Earth twice at speeds greater than 17,000 mph/27,360 kmh, re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, and landed in the Pacific Ocean shortly after 2:00 p.m. EST. According to a NASA press release, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk (who founded PayPal), said, “There’s so much that can go wrong, and it all went right. I’m sort of in semishock.” NASA officials were reportedly very pleased with the mission’s results.

Previously, only five national governments — the U.S., Russia, China, Japan and India — and the multinational European Space Agency had accomplished the feat, says SpaceX. It also is the first flight under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which was initiated to develop commercial supply services to the International Space Station (ISS) after the impending retirement of the U.S. Space Shuttle. NASA has already contracted with SpaceX to fly at least 12 missions to carry cargo to and from the ISS as part of NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program, the Phase II follow-on from COTS, with contracts reportedly worth $1.6 billion. Falcon 9 and Dragon were designed to one day carry astronauts. The COTS and CRS missions are expected to yield valuable flight experience in pursuit of this goal. Musk has publicly stated that if all continues to go well, SpaceX will be prepared to begin cargo deliveries this year.

Although the first and second stage barrels and domes are aluminum, a carbon composite interstage structure joins the stages and houses the second stage’s engines and four parachutes that return the first stage to Earth.

Other commercial space entrepreneurs are flourishing as well. Virgin Galactic LLC (Las Cruces, N.M.) intends to begin suborbital tourist spaceflights soon from a nearby commercial space facility (see “The Private Space Race,” HPC September 2010 (p. 28, or click link at right). Further, the company revealed on Dec. 15, 2010, that it will lend support to Sierra Nevada Space Systems’ (Denver, Colo.) and Orbital Sciences Corp. (Dulles, Va.) efforts to field reusable orbital winged space vehicles that, like Virgin Galactic’s, make runway landings. Virgin Galactic is proposing to market tourist seats on these vehicles and will offer its WhiteKnightTwo mothership to the companies to facilitate their test programs. Notably, Sierra Nevada provides the rocket motor used in Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.