Tomorrow morning at 4:55 am EDT (May 19), SpaceX will attempt to launch its Falcon 9 booster, carrying the Dragon cargo capsule, to the ISS. SpaceX built the Falcon 9 and Dragon as part of NASA’s commercial orbital transportation services (COTS) program, combining private and NASA/taxpayer funds to supply the Station after shuttle retirement.
SpaceX has received about $400 million for the test launches, and has a contract worth $1.6 billion for 12 cargo shipments to the ISS. Founded in 2002, Elon Musk’s company has flown its Falcon 9 to orbit twice, and its Dragon capsule once. On that Dec. 2010 orbital mission, Dragon became the first private spacecraft in history launched to and recovered from orbit.
This mission will combine two previously planned missions, a Dragon orbital test with an approach to ISS, and a second mission to berth with ISS and deliver a demonstration cargo shipment. Tomorrow’s 2-week flight will try to test Dragon in orbit and also berth with ISS. On this flight, Dragon will for the first time:
— Deploy solar panels for power (instead of using batteries)
— Employ rocket thrusters for maneuvering, and guidance software to fly formation with ISS
— Be grappled by the ISS crew and berthed to the Earth-facing (nadir) hatch in the Harmony module (Node 2) at the forward end of the ISS.
If all goes well, on Tuesday, May 22 (Flight Day 4), the SpaceX team will attempt its close approach to the Station, followed by grapple operations and berthing. Dragon will stay at the ISS for about nine days, deliver its cargo, be loaded with trash and returning science hardware, and then be unberthed for departure. Following a retro-rocket burn, Dragon will re-enter the atmosphere, deploy parachutes, and splash down off the California coast for recovery.
Importance for NASA
SpaceX’s launch is the first cargo delivery to the ISS under NASA’s commercial services contract. NASA needs SpaceX and its other commercial partner, Orbital Sciences (whose first test launch may come in August) to succeed. NASA will rely on these companies in order to deliver cargo once launched by the space shuttle. Cargo launches by Russia, Europe, and Japan cannot make up the demand if these private companies do not succeed.
So overall commercial launch success is vital to NASA’s attempt to lower costs, escape the Russian cargo monopoly, and fill ISS cargo demands after shuttle retirement (some 40 metric tons through 2015).
SpaceX is nearly 3 years behind schedule on delivery of cargo to ISS (as is Orbital), as the companies have wrestled with everything from new rocket designs to delays in launch pad construction. This is a tough mission: Dragon has not flown as a maneuvering spacecraft, where it will exercise its navigation software, proximity operations sensors, thrusters, and solar power systems, all needed to reach the ISS. Most critically, the guidance and navigation software must perform flawlessly to enable formation flying within 30 feet of ISS; software checkout has caused months of delays, and in no case must Dragon endanger crew safety or the safety of ISS.
If it can approach safely, my colleagues Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers will reach out with the ISS robot arm and grab Dragon. Berthing via the robot arm will follow, followed by leak checks, hatch opening, and cargo transfer.
Most experts think Falcon 9 will launch successfully and put Dragon in orbit, but that Dragon may not achieve berthing with ISS. I rate the odds about 50/50 on an actual berthing with the Station.
Implications of failure
Success on the Dragon mission will make NASA’s commercial cargo strategy look like a good choice, with progress being made toward buying cargo services routinely. Success will also burnish the follow-on plan to send astronauts to ISS on commercial ships, around 2017. If Dragon launches on Falcon 9, but does not make it to ISS, SpaceX will claim that they at least accomplished the original first test flight objectives. They can then fly a second mission (as originally planned) to achieve rendezvous and berthing, after fixing any shortcomings.
Of course, it’s the nature of the space business that a failure always helps pave the road to eventual success. NASA and SpaceX can claim that “we learned from the test” – and they will go ahead with the next test launch as soon as possible. But a failure will anger a Congress very skeptical of the commercial crew launch approach, even as it recognizes the need for commercial cargo services.
If SpaceX suffers a spectacular failure, (and I’m rooting for success), you’ll see calls for NASA to reshape its plans for commercial astronaut launches. Congress the past couple of years has appropriated only half the funds requested by White House for commercial astronaut launches. A Dragon failure may cause legislators to reduce NASA’s private astronaut launch funding even further. Without those funds, NASA’s 2017 date for commercial astronaut launches will slip further. Congress instead may force NASA to choose a proven satellite booster (Delta IV or Atlas V) and one commercial space capsule to restore astronaut access to Earth orbit as soon as possible.
Already, we are waiting far too long to restore our ability to get our people to the ISS. It will take much more than Dragon success to correct the fix we are in in terms of providing vital space access. We’ve lost three years as NASA’s commercial program has lagged. It will cost more, but I think NASA itself should quickly build a rocket/capsule system to restore our access to ISS. We are risking our $100 billion investment in the Space Station as we go year after year without a domestic rocket to get our crews up there, all the while paying the Russians $55M+ per seat (going to $63 million soon). When the commercial firms are ready, they should replace the NASA interim system. This dual-track approach costs more, but recognizes the risk to our Space Station operations posed by exclusive Russian access. Prudent leaders will increase the NASA budget to quickly restore our own launch capability. This might cost us 0.6% of the federal budget, rather than 0.5%. We can afford that investment. I don’t think we can afford the risk of not doing so.
I wish NASA success on the cargo launch, because my colleagues and friends working on the ISS need the supplies – and so we can stop paying the Russians, too. My estimate is that Dragon will not make it all the way to ISS on this first attempt. I hope SpaceX scores a big success, but what they are trying is truly “rocket science.”
One measure of how hard this rendezvous and berthing job is comes from shuttle experience. We never failed to dock the shuttle at Mir or ISS, but it took humans at the controls to achieve that record. Mission Control can help, but in the end Dragon’s computers have to come close to human piloting skills, and that’s a lot to ask on a first attempt.