Print 36 comment(s) - last by Randomblame.. on Dec 9 at 11:09 PM

This morning SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket enjoyed the first successful launch of its Dragon capsule. The capsule is designed to ferry supplies and passengers to the International Space Station. The company hopes to be delivering cargo by the end of 2011, and passengers by 2013.  (Source: LA Times)

The Dragon capsule successfully separate as planned, entering low Earth orbit (LEO) (artist's rendering of the separation).  (Source: SpaceX)

The launch is a great success for SpaceX founder Elon Musk and his company.  (Source: SpaceX)

U.S. President Barack Obama faced a great deal of criticism for denationalizing U.S. space travel. Critics contended private corporations would fail and be unable to equal NASA's abilities.  (Source: AP)
Musk's brilliant startup plans to send cargo to the ISS by the end of 2011, astronauts into space by 2013.

This morning SpaceX became the first private corporation to launch a large capsule into Earth orbit, marking a landmark in the exploration of space.  

At approximately 10:43 a.m. ET the company's Dragon capsule launched from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Kennedy Space Center, aboard a two-stage Falcon 9 rocket.   The stages performed flawlessly. 

The launch began with the first stage's nine powerful Merlin 1C engines roaring to life.  As they died, the first stage dropped as planned, and the rocket soared through the upper atmosphere.  The second stage, which employs Merlin Vacuum engine, then began firing, propelling the rocket towards orbit.  The second stage then successfully separated, and the protective capsule cone fell away just as planned.

The only remaining objective is to test the capsule's heat shield for a successful reentry into the Earth's atmosphere.

A Victory for Elon Musk and President Obama

The success thus far is a great validation for both U.S. President Barack Obama and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.  Both men took great risks to push the idea of commercial spaceflight from daydreams to reality.

Mr. Musk, a flashy billionaire who made his fortune co-founding PayPal, lives much like his comic book equivalent Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) whose movie he appeared in earlier this year (in fact Iron Man director Jon Favreau cites musk as the inspiration for Robert Downy Jr.'s take on Stark).  Mr. Musk turns notions of lackadaisical fortune barons on their head, betting on outlandish endeavors and working slavishly to see them to success.

Mr. Musk co-founded Tesla Motors, America's first new major automaker in 54 years.  He spent $400M USD of his fortune to advance SpaceX to its current point of success.  The entrepreneur serves as CEO for both companies, frequently spending 100+ hours a week on his duties.  He was on hand personally supervising the launch, of course.

Much like with Tesla Motors, many sneered at Mr. Musk's claims -- and some still do.  Mr. Musk claims that by the end of 2011, SpaceX will be delivering cargo to the International Space Station and within three years his company will be able to deliver astronauts to it at a cost $30M USD per astronaut less than his sole competitor -- the Russian Federal Space Agency.  Many doubt he will succeed.

But for all that doubt SpaceX was the first company to launch a commercial rocket into low Earth orbit, and the only company in world history to launch a satellite aboard a commercial rocket.  SpaceX did what aerospace giants like Boeing could not -- develop a financially feasible launch vehicle.

SpaceX has secured a number of large launch contracts from corporations and the U.S. government already thanks to that success.  So it might be folly to bet against its next objective -- to become the first commercial entity to put astronauts in space.

The success is also a win for U.S. President Barack Obama.  Facing a large budget deficit, thanks in part to his expensive stimulus measures, President Obama made the painful decision of cutting back on NASA funding, deciding to turn to commercial companies like SpaceX and rival startup Orbital Sciences to provide its transportation needs.

That was a huge risk.  While past Presidents and members of Congress had long talked about offloading launch duties to commercial entities, no one had been able to do it.  President Obama's critics were quick to blast the plan, labeling it the end of spaceflight.

What's Next?

As mentioned the capsule still has to complete a low-Earth orbit (LEO) and successfully touch down.  

Assuming success, the rocket should begin ferrying cargo to the ISS later next year.  It will have a capacity of 6,000 kg, with a return cargo capacity of 3,000 kg.  The average cost per flight will be under $5,360 USD/kg.  The previous cheapest launch vehicle [PDF] was Russia's Rockot, a converted ICBM, which delivered cargo for $7,297 USD/kg (the Russian Sh'til was also rumored to be very cheap, but its launch was subsidized at an undisclosed rate by the Russian Navy, rendering valid comparison impossible).  The U.S. Space Shuttle, the primary U.S. workhorse, had costs of around $10,400 USD/kg.

Then in 2013 it is expected to carry astronauts to the ISS for the first time.  The passenger variant of the Dragon capsule can carry up to seven people, or a mix of crew and cargo.  It will be competing with Boeing, who also designing a passenger spacecraft.

Given its reasonable launch costs, it would be surprising if SpaceX didn't jump into the burgeoning space tourism business.  Currently Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic enjoys reign over this sector, but his Spaceships One & Two reaches only 100 km -- which while the "edge of space" isn't true low earth orbit.  LEO begins at around 160 km.  SpaceX would likely offer a pricier, but more impressive tour of space.

And it may be overly forward looking, but it would not be surprising to see SpaceX compete for contracts to send astronauts or potentially colonies to the Moon or Mars.  After all, as the U.S. showed, the critical advance is being able to 
put astronauts in space.  Once you've accomplished that, the sky's the limit.

Note: This story will be updated to reflect the results of the re-entry, when it gets them.  You can follow NASA's live Twitter feed here.

Updated Wed. Dec. 8, 2010 11:45 p.m.-

After orbiting the earth at over 17,000 mph, the Dragon capsule completed its three hour flight this afternoon, successfully landing in the Pacific Ocean at around 2 p.m. EST.  The craft landed approximately 500 miles off the coast of California. 

With the successful launch SpaceX becomes the first commercial entity to join the elite club of LEO victors, that was previously occupied by governments of global superpowers.  Only the United States, Russia, China, Japan, India and the European Space Agency have reached LEO, but now SpaceX has officially joined that list.

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congrats to them!
By kattanna on 12/8/2010 12:36:33 PM , Rating: 5
its good to see progress here.

my hats off to them all and their hard work.

RE: congrats to them!
By geddarkstorm on 12/8/2010 1:03:23 PM , Rating: 4
Seriously! And for such incredibly low prices (compared to everyone else), this could well be the beginning of the opening of space to the common man.

Next, we need to learn how to design sustainable colonies using the Moon, and -then- we can finally start branching out and reach for the stars.

RE: congrats to them!
By kattanna on 12/8/2010 1:12:54 PM , Rating: 4

i'd like to see a more functional space station that served as a lay over, refueling spot as well. build there a ship that never leaves space but is designed to transport between earth/moon and then earth/mars.

make separate ascent/descent vehicles for the bodies they are designed for to maximize efficiency.

RE: congrats to them!
By Anoxanmore on 12/8/2010 1:19:06 PM , Rating: 2
I shall be the first captain of the USS Enterprise. :)

Starfleet here I come!

RE: congrats to them!
By GuinnessKMF on 12/8/2010 3:32:05 PM , Rating: 5
Start small... captain your way out of the basement.

RE: congrats to them!
By Anoxanmore on 12/8/2010 3:52:57 PM , Rating: 2
While I do live on the main floor of an apartment building, I do not think that is what you meant.

RE: congrats to them!
By Ben on 12/9/2010 3:24:58 AM , Rating: 3

RE: congrats to them!
By jhb116 on 12/8/2010 10:45:54 PM , Rating: 2
I think we're getting ahead of ourselves. One success does not a trend make and there have been several failures to get to this point with the Falcon series.

Don't get me wrong - I hope they continue to be successful, however, those cost figures are still projections and may not even have been updated based on development difficulties. We were promised very similar performance by NASA with the space shuttle over 40 years ago......

RE: congrats to them!
By Laereom on 12/9/2010 2:15:48 AM , Rating: 2
A few things to note:

So far, SpaceX has spent less than a billion dollars and they're in space, and in their next demo, they will actually be delivering cargo, assuming this one finishes as planned.

Their success rate for getting craft into orbit is 50%.

However, ALL of their failures were on their cheap falcon 1 craft...and after their 4th flight of that, they haven't missed a single flight, although they have had to delay a couple due to suboptimal conditions.

They still have yet to figure out how to fully recover their 1st stage, which is critical in their ultimate plan to drive costs down to about $1/g, which is about 1/5 of their current price -- which is still the lowest in the industry.

They are already immensely cost effective in comparison to government space agencies (the numbers listed above are the actual prices they're charging customers at this point), and although they're a bit behind on their timetables, they've done a pretty good job of actually delivering what they say they will. Although nothing is certain, I will say this:

They've done an incredible task with limited resources and there are no indications they're going to stop performing. I think that if anyone can do what they say they're going to do, it's them.

RE: congrats to them!
By randyc on 12/9/2010 3:24:01 PM , Rating: 2
The article quoted $10,400 USD/kg for the shuttle. I wonder where that number came from? Is that just the incremental cost of building the launcher?
I heard that it will cost $1.6 billion to add one more shuttle flight. It sounds like the Shuttle fixed cost versus variable cost is about 20 to 1!
It seems to me SpaceX's per kilogram pricing includes all overhead, and the Shuttle pricing includes none of it.

RE: congrats to them!
By FaceMaster on 12/8/2010 1:28:52 PM , Rating: 2
And for such incredibly low prices (compared to everyone else)

Yeah! Ryanspace ftw

RE: congrats to them!
By Paj on 12/9/2010 7:37:31 AM , Rating: 2
Shh, youll give them ideas!

A Victory for Elon Musk and President Obama
By JimboK29 on 12/8/2010 12:36:39 PM , Rating: 5
A Victory for Elon Musk and President Obama

His first 'victory' in 2 years.

RE: A Victory for Elon Musk and President Obama
By BSMonitor on 12/8/10, Rating: 0
By Moishe on 12/9/2010 8:56:18 AM , Rating: 5
Is that all you've got.... a reference to an ex-President? Know what a straw man is? How about addressing the actual point?

Obama has nothing to do with this launch and I think it's effing ridiculous that Mick is giving him credit.

RE: A Victory for Elon Musk and President Obama
By kattanna on 12/8/2010 1:05:09 PM , Rating: 2
A Victory for Elon Musk

i wish it had been left at that.

i wished that the republican president who surrenders faster then the french, though at least the french get into a conflict before they surrender, that we currently have was not even mentioned in this article as it taints the awesomeness of the event.

By Samus on 12/8/2010 2:14:58 PM , Rating: 3
Still am not certain how victorious Tesla will be in the long run. Come on Tesla S!

By nick2000 on 12/9/2010 9:53:24 AM , Rating: 2
Interesting comparison but can you give me an example of when the French surrendered? They got wiped out in 1940 (80000 killed in 2 weeks) while buying the Brits time to escape the onslaught. In fact, I believe that the France is the only country to have won an insurgency war (Algeria) in the last 100 years. Of course, that was a military win but a political loss, hence, "well, now that we won, we can leave you fix your own mess". Incidentally, it gives a good lesson about Iraq or Afghanistan. As for Vietnam, there was no strategic justification to fight there, so what's the point?

In any case, good news about the space rocket. We need more commercialization of it so that we (taxpayers) can finally stop subsidizing it and turn to the next great frontier (e.g. deep space or moon exploitation). I do wonder if near orbital space is going to get too messy without cleanup.

By rcc on 12/8/2010 3:40:55 PM , Rating: 2
A typical politician. Get in line to claim credit for something someone was already doing.

This is good news
By Mclendo06 on 12/8/2010 12:58:16 PM , Rating: 2
I have been admittedly skeptical of the COTS approach to manned spaceflight, but I am at least today a little more optimistic that it might work. Keep it up Space X. You appear to be our country's best (and possibly only) hope for a domestic manned space launch capability in the next 10 years. If you can pull it off by 2013, well, that would be awesome.

RE: This is good news
By Kanazozo on 12/8/2010 1:23:19 PM , Rating: 2
It should also be noted that SpaceX spans the States - from a manufacturing location in Hawethorne, CA, to a testing and design location in Waco, TX, to the launch in Cape Canaveral, FL.

Again, its exciting to think of the possibilities to come.

RE: This is good news
By nafhan on 12/8/2010 1:35:51 PM , Rating: 2
I'm sure it's not what you were implying, but I think calling this COTS downplays the achievements here. Commercial, yes. Off the shelf, not as much. Developing a brand new rocket launch system isn't a simple endeavor.
This was also much riskier than a traditional "COTS" procurement as much of the tech hadn't even been developed or tested at the time NASA basically pinned it's manned space flight program on someone else doing something that hadn't been done before.

RE: This is good news
By menace on 12/8/2010 1:51:16 PM , Rating: 2
Actually COTS is the acronym for the NASA program (Commercial Orbital Transfer Services). Confusion is understandable.

RE: This is good news
By Mclendo06 on 12/8/2010 2:20:30 PM , Rating: 2
To clarify, this is the meaning I intended. It their quest to be clever, it seems someone at NASA developed an acronym with a confusing and intentional double-meaning.

RE: This is good news
By nafhan on 12/8/2010 4:48:21 PM , Rating: 2
Very interesting. It does sound like they were being overly clever.

By Kanazozo on 12/8/2010 1:14:30 PM , Rating: 2
Although it is saddening that we are starting to see the end of an era of space exploration and progress (RIP, NASA), it is great to see that private entities are capable of undertaking such monumental tasks and succeeding.

The most important aspect of this is as follows: our future as a civilization is no longer tethered to government funding cycles and whims. Its a long shot, but if the market dictates that a colony on Mars is worth it, it could very well happen within our lifetimes.

RE: Congratulations
By CharonPDX on 12/8/2010 3:01:43 PM , Rating: 3
We're not at the end of space exploration, we're at the transition of the mundane from government to private hands, so the government can focus on exploration.

Lots of money is going to planetary probes, which is great. Money is going toward ouside-Earth-orbit manned missions. It's just the orbital missions that are being pawned off on the private sector, where it belongs.

Think about 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was Pan Am that was flying to orbit. To a space station of commercial interests. THAT is the future of space, we're just a little behind schedule.

RE: Congratulations
By Belard on 12/9/2010 1:35:05 AM , Rating: 2
A little BEHIND schedule?

The tech in 2010 (besides HAL) such as the moon base, space station, Discovery and the Space Liner is about 40~60 years away at our current rate...

But I doubt we'll ever get to Jupiter without improve space-engine technology and creation of a shield systems so the elements of space and the radiation from the SUN and Jupiter itself doesn't kill the humans. In 2001 ASO Book, they went even farther - Saturn.

RE: Congratulations
By geddarkstorm on 12/9/2010 3:57:17 PM , Rating: 2
Worst, is that we have, and have had for a few decades, the technology to do all that. Just no one has been willing to spend the time, MONEY, and energy to put it all together and get it started.

Now, finally, there is financial incentive to going into space, which is why we're seeing it happen now.

not financially viable yet
By Chernobyl68 on 12/8/2010 6:35:03 PM , Rating: 2
so far all he's done is spend money and launch test rockets. Until he makes a business out of launching them (by charging customers for money) its just him spending money.

RE: not financially viable yet
By delphinus100 on 12/8/2010 6:44:49 PM , Rating: 2
And that's why this is a test flight.

But, like seeing the first 787 take off (only much more so), it's still a very interesting and promising test flight...

RE: not financially viable yet
By Moishe on 12/9/2010 8:59:42 AM , Rating: 2
Any doubt that it will be?

NASA is a "science" outfit that is inundated and surrounded by politics, which renders it all but useless.

We need privatization.

NASA budget
By BernardP on 12/8/2010 3:15:36 PM , Rating: 2
The article says: " Facing a large budget deficit, thanks in part to his expensive stimulus measures, President Obama made the painful decision of cutting back on NASA funding"

In fact, President Obama could have the audacity to cut the totality of NASA's funding (less than 20 B$), and it would only put a symbolic dent on the 1500 B$ deficit.

RE: NASA budget
By Moishe on 12/9/2010 9:05:53 AM , Rating: 1
Painful decision?

hahaha. Obama spends more on redistributing the taxpayers money everyday and spending on stupid stuff... he doesn't give a rat's arse about NASA.

In the world of politics, everything is a decision about "how does this make ME look." This is no different. Attributing feeling to politicians is like relating to a pet as a child. Might be fun for us and fun to think that politicians care, but they are the ones who will pull any string and hang anyone in order to get their way.

How to Land your Dragon...
By delphinus100 on 12/8/2010 6:49:58 PM , Rating: 2
For those not already aware, the Dragon capsule has successfully re-entered and been recovered:

By Randomblame on 12/9/2010 11:09:36 PM , Rating: 2
Stop it damnit just stop it. I know you're in love with Obama but all he did was deny nasa funding so he could throw away money on random crap we can't even track down. This is all space x - congratulations to them.

Praising Obama for killing constellation? You're just getting nuttier and nuttier...

"Young lady, in this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!" -- Homer Simpson

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