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Into Space Again

By John Mauer

The final mission of the NASA Space Shuttle ended when Atlantis rolled to a stop at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 21, 2011. The International Space Station is currently being serviced by the Soyuz and Progress spacecraft from Russia, with the latest delivery of crew and supplies coming on December 23, 2011. But this year could bring a resurgence of American space flight, albeit with a twist. The first private, commercial, delivery by the American company, SpaceX, is scheduled for February 7, 2012.

Update: According to news reports, SpaceX has rescheduled to April due to a myriad of small problems.

Update:The Falcon 9 rocket is on track to blast off on Saturday, May 19, with a backup date of May 22.

Dragon on Falcon 9, Photo: Mike Sheehan / SpaceX.

The International Space Station (ISS) is a joint project between the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan, and Europe to build and maintain a modular, inhabited structure in earth orbit. The ISS was designed not only as a research laboratory but also as a testing site for spacecraft systems and equipment. Currently, six astronauts are in residence conducting numerous experiments and observations.

When the space shuttles were retired, NASA was left with no American option to bring either people or supplies to the ISS; the follow-on projects had missed both cost and delivery milestones and were cancelled or significantly delayed. To compensate, NASA started the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) in 2006 to bring a free market solution and private industry on line. The second round of financing in 2008 went to SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation.

Orbital Sciences is an established space firm, having engaged in satellite delivery to orbit since 1990. They have delivered over 100 spacecraft for commercial, military and civil customers worldwide. Orbital provides a complete set of reliable, cost-effective small- and medium-class space and rocket systems products. Their satellites include geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) satellites for communications and broadcasting, low Earth orbit (LEO) spacecraft that perform remote sensing and scientific research, spacecraft used for national security missions, and planetary probes to explore deep space. Working alone and with Boeing, they have been especially valuable in military applications. However, a delivery vehicle for the ISS, with its added weight and docking requirements, is something new for them, and return is not part of their current plan.

SpaceX, on the other hand, is relatively new to the space arena entirely. Established in 2002 by Elon Musk , the founder of PayPal, they have developed new launch vehicles from the ground up. They launched their first successful Falcon 1 rocket in 2006, and a larger Falcon 9 rocket with Dragon module combination in 2010. Further, the Dragon module was returned to earth in typical NASA fashion, drogue chute into the Pacific. Their video brings with it the excitement and danger of space flight. NASA was enthusiastic about this success. Now SpaceX and Dragon are poised to rendezvous with the ISS.

Dragon Approaching ISS, (Simulation). Courtesy NASA

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