SpaceX launch, a strong start for commercial spaceflight

With Tuesday's launch of the Dragon space capsule aboard the Falcon 9 rocket, SpaceX made a strong case for the viability of commercial spaceflight. But the craft still has quite a few tests to pass for its mission to be a success.

John Raoux/AP
The Falcon 9 spacecraft, built by SpaceX, lifts off on Tuesday morning carrying the Dragon capsule. This is the first time a commercial company will send its own rocket to the International Space Station.

Ever since the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet last year, the United States has had no way to send astronauts into space by itself. But the successful launch on May 22 of the Falcon 9 rocket and unmanned Dragon spacecraft, built by the California-based SpaceX company, puts the country one step closer to regaining that ability.

The Dragon is scheduled to dock with the International Space Station later this week to deliver more than 1000 pounds of food, clothing, and scientific equipment, the first time a commercial company has docked a craft with the station. It's also the first time an American craft has been launched toward the International Space Station since the inauguration of the space shuttle fleet in 1981.

The Dragon is an important step in NASA's plan to outsource space travel to the private sector. The government hopes that private companies will be able to ferry cargo and astronauts to and from space more efficiently, freeing it to focus on deep-space missions and a potential trip to an asteroid and to Mars. To that end, SpaceX already has $1.6 billion in launch contracts from NASA, and if they can prove that they can safely bring cargo to and from the space station, they will ease concerns about the safety of commercial space travel and strengthen their ties to the space agency.

The two-stage Falcon 9 lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla. before dawn on Tuesday morning, carrying the cone-shaped Dragon capsule into orbit before separating. The Dragon successfully extended its solar arrays, which provide power to the craft. SpaceX hopes to dock the capsule with the International Space Station by May 25 after it's performed a series of tests to show that the Dragon can operate safely near the station. Once the craft catches up with the station, the crew aboard – two Americans, three Russians, and a Dutchman – will guide it in with a robot arm and transfer the supplies aboard. The Dragon will then return to earth, splash down in the Pacific Ocean and guided back to land on a ship.

This was the third successful launch of the Falcon 9 rocket, but the second try for this particular mission. It was initially scheduled to fly on May 19, but a flight computer shut down the engines just a half-second after ignition when sensors found a faulty valve in one of the rocket's engines. Engineers fixed it over the weekend, making Tuesday's successful launch all the more significant for the company and for NASA.

What do you think is next for SpaceX? Are you excited about the prospect of commercial spaceflight, or still mourning the retirement of the shuttle fleet? Let us know in the comments section below.

For more tech news, follow us on Twitter @venturenaut

[Editor's note: The original version of this article misstated the nationality of astronaut André Kuipers. He's Dutch.]

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.