Early Monday morning a SpaceX Dragon capsule docked with the International Space Station (ISS) in a successful commercial resupply mission. Elon Musk’s Hawthorne, California firm is now five for five on these missions, not counting two successful test flights. This demonstrated reliability is critically important for continued operation of the space station, which can no longer depend on the Space Shuttle’s massive cargo capacity.
ISS can also receive deliveries from Russia’s less dependable Progress vehicle as well as from the seldom-used Japanese Kounotori spacecraft. The other American option, Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus craft, made two successful flights to ISS before suffering a catastrophic failure last October when the Russian engine in its Antares launch vehicle exploded immediately after take off from its Virginia launch pad. Orbital has decided to replace that engine with a newer Russian model while its spacecraft hitches rides from United Launch Alliance’s, Russian powered Atlas V.
SpaceX also has an impressive half dozen commercial launches to its name and a manifest of launch orders from domestic and international clients stretching into the future. They’ve managed to do this the old fashioned way, by being cheaper, faster and more reliable.
Elon Musk’s unlikely startup leveraged existing resources by securing a good deal on a boarded up Northrup-Grumman production facility and hiring from California’s deep pool of aerospace talent. I’ve visited the SpaceX production facility many times over the years and watching it grow has been astoundingly impressive. There was a time when most of the activity in the massive factory was huddled in the corners and workers rode bicycles to get from one end of a mostly empty space to the other. In fact, they had the time and the space to film parts of Iron Man 2 inside that cavernous enclosure. Those days are long gone and you can hardly turn around in the factory without bumping into a spacecraft, rocket engine or one of the thousands of skilled SpaceX workers. The firm is expanding with operations in Texas, Florida and New Mexico and has hundreds of jobs openings posted. Approaching the space market like a consumer products business and building rockets on a rate of production rather than on a custom order basis, this all-American space company has been aggressively driving down costs in a way that even scares the Chinese.
The only truly American option for keeping American astronauts supplied is also the most likely candidate to save them from dependence on Russia for rides to the space station. The Dragon Version 2 is awaiting final tests from NASA to begin its taxi service under the agency’s ambitious Commercial Crew program. Ironically, the main reason that hasn’t already happened has been a NASA budget strangled by Congress and consumed by expensive payments to Russia. …