SpaceX set for historic commercial flight to station

The first of a new breed of private-sector spacecraft built for NASA as a commercial venture is poised for blastoff Saturday on a high-stakes inaugural test flight to the International Space Station.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla.--In what proponents hail as the dawn of a new era, Space Exploration Technologies is in the final stages of prepping a low-cost Falcon 9 rocket for launch Saturday on a long-awaited mission to boost the company's unmanned Dragon cargo ship on an inaugural flight to the International Space Station.

The solar-powered capsule is the first of a new breed of private-sector spacecraft built for NASA in a commercial venture to deliver critical supplies to the space station in the wake of the shuttle's retirement and, if the company's founder has his way, to eventually carry astronauts to and from the lab complex.

A SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule closes in on the International Space Station in this computer graphic. SpaceX

"I think we are at a major inflection point in space," Elon Musk, the Internet entrepreneur who founded SpaceX and serves as its chief designer, told "60 Minutes." "I think we're at the dawn of a new era, and I think it's going to be very exciting to people in America and around the world."

With a rock star persona, deep pockets, and a relentless drive to lower costs and change the way the space industry operates, Musk hopes to beat out Boeing and other aerospace competitors by selling NASA on a manned version of the Dragon cargo ship to ferry astronauts to and from the station.

Beyond that he envisions building fully reusable rockets for eventual flights to Mars with a long-range goal of reducing the cost of spaceflight to the point that it becomes widely affordable.

"I'm hopeful that in 20 years we'll be taking lots of people and equipment to Mars and that the beginnings of a self-sustaining base on Mars will be there. I'm not saying this will happen. You asked what I hope will happen, so I hope that will happen. Yeah, I think it's possible."

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo capsule on the pad at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. SpaceX

But even Musk knows SpaceX must learn to walk before it can run, and a major step on the road to credibility will be Saturday's planned launch of the Falcon 9/Dragon spacecraft. Criticized at times for what some perceive as overconfidence or even arrogance, Musk has gone out of his way to lower expectations for this first space station test flight.

"This is pretty tricky," he said in a preflight news conference. "The public out there, they may not realize the space station is zooming around the Earth every 90 minutes and it's going 17,000 miles an hour. So you've got to launch up there, you've got to rendezvous and be tracking the space station to within inches, really, and this is a thing that's going 12 times faster than the bullet from an assault rifle.

"So it's hard. I think we've got a pretty good chance, but I want to emphasize this, this is a test flight. If we don't succeed in berthing on this mission, then we've got a couple of more missions later this year and I think we'll succeed on one of those."

The goal of the mission, repeatedly delayed to allow more time for software tests and checkout, is to rendezvous with the International Space Station and in so doing, demonstrate the Dragon capsule's ability to autonomously fly a precise trajectory, respond to commands, and to safely abort an approach if something goes wrong.

If the flight goes well, SpaceX will be clear to press ahead with routine cargo delivery missions later this year under a $1.6 billion NASA contract calling for at least 12 flights to the space station at an average cost of some $133 million per mission -- a bargain in the high-cost world of space operations.

If there are any major problems, that schedule likely would be disrupted. But NASA's final shuttle flight to the station last summer left the outpost well stocked and NASA managers say there's plenty of time to recover from a mishap or software problems that might prevent a linkup.

"This is a test flight," SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said Friday. "What's important from a SpaceX perspective on a test flight is to make sure we learn something. Hopefully we learn a lot, and hopefully we make a lot of progress. But really what we're here to do is demonstrate this spacecraft, wring it out to the maximum extent possible, and then obviously the ultimate goal is the berth (with the space station)."

Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington Institute, described the test flight as "ambitious" and that simply making it to the station's vicinity would be "a great success."

The SpaceX Dragon capsule will be docked at the Earth-facing port of the forward Harmony module. SpaceX

"I think it'll be really, really impressive if they, in fact, can berth," he said. "I think that's a stretch, but if that's done, then I would be very technically impressed."

Pulling off an orbital rendezvous is a feat only a handful of nations and major aerospace contractors have achieved, and despite Musk's efforts to downplay the significance of the Falcon 9/Dragon mission, many view the flight as a watershed moment for NASA and the Obama administration's push to commercialize space.

"Saturday is a huge day for NASA and the nation," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told CBS News. "It will mark the return of cargo launches to American soil. We've been reliant on our international partners since we phased the space shuttle out, but this will be bringing it back home -- American jobs, launches from Cape Canaveral, and that's critical."

That level of attention focused on an unmanned test flight by a company with a comparatively short track record rankles critics and competitors alike. United Launch Alliance, which builds Delta 4 and Atlas 5 boosters for NASA and the military, does not get nearly this level of public scrutiny, even though the company routinely launches some of the world's most sophisticated satellites and space probes.

The latest versions of the workhorse Atlas and Delta rockets have perfect flight records, and ULA plans to "man rate" the Atlas 5 for use by SpaceX's competitors bidding for separate NASA contracts to build a commercial manned spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the space station.

But SpaceX engineers believe they have a leg up on the competition, gaining valuable flight experience with the unmanned Falcon 9/Dragon cargo missions, knowledge that will be plowed directly into the manned version of the spacecraft.

And so, in the wake of the shuttle's retirement and the Obama administration's directive for NASA to "buy" rockets for flights to low-Earth orbit, SpaceX, with its relatively low-cost boosters, has emerged as a major player in the space agency's near-term future.

"I would argue part of the attention (SpaceX is) getting is very natural just given the end of the shuttle," said Pace. "But there maybe is extra attention to it because there's a realization there really is nothing else, that either the private sector approach that the administration has put front and center works or it doesn't. And so the stakes are higher. It's a riskier approach, and therefore people pay more attention to it."

A major question mark is how reliable the SpaceX rockets and capsules will prove to be and whether Musk can routinely deliver Falcon 9 boosters for the bargain-basement prices he advertises on the Web: $54 million.

It's difficult to compare that to the cost of an Atlas or Delta, because the ULA rockets are built under a different type of contract and the boosters vary widely depending on customer requirements. But the low end of the cost spectrum is believed to be around $100 million.

While the idiom "you get what you pay for" might occur to some observers, Mike Horkachuck, the NASA project executive for SpaceX, insists any concern along those lines is misplaced.

"When you hear 'cheaper,' you sometimes think it's going to be less reliable," he said. "I know for a fact that SpaceX is very focused on trying to make sure that their systems work. They know that as a company they have to make their products successful or they're not going to get new business. So they're very focused on making sure that their systems will work and that they have high reliability built into the systems."

Making only its third flight, the 157-foot-tall, two-stage Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to blast off Saturday from complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 4:55:18 a.m. EDT, roughly the moment Earth's rotation carries the pad into the plane of the space station's orbit. Forecasters are predicting a 70 percent chance of good weather.

Unlike the more-powerful but now-retired space shuttle, which had enough thrust to launch five minutes to either side of that "in-plane" moment and still steer into the proper orbit, the 690,000-pound Falcon 9 must take off on time to catch up with the space station. If the countdown is interrupted for any reason, the flight will be delayed to May 22.

The Dragon capsule is equipped with a state-of-the-art heat shield to protect the craft during re-entry. SpaceX

But if all goes well, the Falcon's nine first-stage Merlin engines, generating a combined 1.1 million pounds of thrust, will burn for three minutes, pushing the spacecraft out of the dense lower atmosphere. The second stage, powered by a single Merlin engine burning kerosene and liquid oxygen, will finish the climb to orbit 9 minutes and 14 seconds after liftoff.

Thirty-five seconds later, the Dragon capsule will be released from the second stage and a few moments after that, its two solar panels should unfold to begin generating power and recharging onboard batteries. That will set the stage for a complex series of tests to check out the spacecraft's flight software, its navigation system and sensors, its 18 Draco thrusters, and communications hardware.

"Dragon is autonomous, it's a robotic spaceship and it's going to go and do this complicated maneuver where it's going to work with the space station," Musk said. "It's not as though there were somebody flying it with a joystick or there is somebody on board who can make real-time corrections. Dragon is making lots of decisions all the time to optimize the probability of success. There's a lot of intelligence on board the spacecraft."

But this will be just the second flight of a Dragon capsule following a successful test flight in December 2010. It will be the first featuring solar panels, a full suite of flight computers, a cooling system, and other critical components, and it will be the first to fly all the way to the International Space Station.

If all goes well, the Dragon capsule will end its mission with a parachute-assisted splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. SpaceX

SpaceX flight controllers will be responsible for the mission from launch through arrival near the space station. From there, NASA will have the final say. The Dragon will not be allowed to begin its final approach to the station until the NASA flight control team is convinced the spacecraft is operating properly.

"Our role here in Houston is really the safety of the crew on board the space station, the space station itself, and then the SpaceX/Dragon team is responsible for mission success," said space station Flight Director Holly Ridings. "And we've built a framework working together where we should be able to get both of those items successfully accomplished."

Starting from a point 6.2 miles below and well behind the laboratory, Dragon's suite of flight computers will use data from navigation satellites and the space station to precisely compute its position, using the data to maneuver itself to a point just 1.6 miles below the complex.

A variety of tests will be performed before the Dragon drops back down to a point 6.2 miles below the station. The capsule then will pull out in front of the station, loop up and over it, and eventually return to a point 6.2 miles below and behind the laboratory.

"That fly-under is very important to us because it's the first time the Dragon and the space station will communicate with each other, an absolute requirement for proximity operations," Ridings said. "It's the first time the crew on board the ISS will send commands to Dragon and get a response."

The flight control team also will be testing the spacecraft's navigation system to make sure the flight computers are able to accurately calculate the ship's position in space relative to the space station.

If the fly-under goes well, the Dragon spacecraft will be cleared to move in for berthing on May 22, flying a stepwise automated approach to hold points 1.5 miles and .9 miles directly below the station.

Assuming all systems are operating normally, the capsule will move up to a point just 820 feet below the station for another series of controllability tests. Only then will Dragon be cleared to approach to within about 30 feet.

At that point, said Ridings, "we take a poll and make sure that all of the systems on board the ISS, all the systems on board the Dragon, any type of failure detection, the robotic arm, the cameras, basically everything you need in order to do that next step of the mission is in the configuration you expected."

Once at the capture point 30 feet from the station, rocket thrusters will be disabled and the station's Canadian-built robot arm, operated by flight engineer Donald Pettit, will latch on to a grapple fixture on the side of the Dragon capsule.

Pettit then will trade places with European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers, who will use the arm to maneuver Dragon into position for berthing at the forward Harmony module's Earth-facing port. Pettit will make sure the common berthing mechanism operates as required to firmly lock Dragon to the space station.

For its initial visit, the Dragon capsule will be carrying nearly 1,150 pounds of cargo: 674 pounds of food and crew provisions; 46 pounds of science hardware and equipment; 271 pounds of cargo bags needed for future flights; and 22 pounds of computer equipment.

NASA originally planned for the Dragon to remain docked with the station for about three weeks. But in early June, the angle between the sun and the plane of the station's orbit will begin resulting in temperatures that will require flight controllers to either bring the capsule home early or keep it at the station for an extended period.

As it now stands, Dragon will remained docked until May 31. At that point, the station's robot arm will unberth the capsule and then release it. Unlike all other Russian, European, and Japanese cargo ships servicing the International Space Station, the Dragon is equipped with a heat shield and parachutes for an ocean splashdown off the coast of California.

The spacecraft is capable of carrying more than 5,500 pounds of cargo back to Earth, a critical consideration when it comes to getting biological samples and failed components back to scientists and engineers on the ground. For the initial test flight, NASA plans to bring back only about 1,455 pounds of equipment and no-longer-needed material.

About the author

    Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He has covered more than 125 shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune, and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia." You can follow his frequent status updates at the CBS News Space page.

     

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