Dragon To Rise In Shadow of Orion
|Above is an excerpt from SpaceFlightNow.com’s launch schedule & tracking website; citing the May 28, 2010 launch of the first Falcon 9 / Dragon vehicle at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA.|
o, it’s not the title to another World of Warcraft extension. It’s actually the most likely candidate to replace the space shuttle — and it’s scheduled to lift of from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Wednesday, following three weeks of weather-related and shuttle-related delays.
This launch is actually sort of a big deal. In April, President Obama cancelled the Constellation vehicle project which would have seen NASA pursue its traditional role of manufacturing the hardware and providing all mission management personnel entirely. (Full details about Constellation available via Wikipedia.) But as was also the norm for the veteran space agency, costs were starting to rise during development of the Orion return vehicle programme and NASA’s long-term ambition of moving beyond the International Space Station (ISS) to the Moon and Mars started do look as vulnerable to cuts from Congress as the Shuttle programme had been. Dates somewhere between 2015 and 2016 just to get the programme operational also didn’t seem realistic. Yet completion of the space station coupled with the imminent retirement of the aging Space Shuttle fleet meant that a new vehicle would need to be ready to do the things NASA wanted to do before the end of the next decade.
Cancelling Constellation was controversial. Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society voiced harsh criticism of the presidential directive to terminate Constellation:
“Under the Obama plan, NASA will spend $100 billion on human spaceflight over the next 10 years in order to accomplish nothing.”
“Obama called for sending a crew to a near Earth asteroid by 2025. … Had Obama not canceled the Ares 5, we could have used it to perform an asteroid mission by 2016. But the President, while calling for such a flight, actually is terminating the programs that would make it possible.”
While it’s true that there is currently no commercially-tendered solution to deliver a crew to the asteroid belt, it’s not clear whether the Ares 5 rocket was really the vehicle to do that job properly. Delivering a crew to the belt is one thing; doing that plus doing meaningful science once there is quite another and some believe that a different and, as yet, undeveloped vehicle would be needed for that job.
The first step in getting there is the launch of Falcon 9 & Dragon this week. Though this launch is unmanned, the next launch (currently scheduled for mid-July) won’t be. NASA is providing the launch facilities for these commercial missions and, if they go well, SpaceX — the company which designed and built the Falcon 9 and Dragon — will inevitably take on the role of being the company primarily responsible for delivering cargo & personnel to ISS. SpaceX and at least one other US-based company have the ability to compete for contracts to carry people and equipment to Earth orbit and possibly even the moon. And with commercial involvement, perhaps NASA’s ambitions can be realized even sooner than would otherwise have been possible with NASA going it alone.
At least….that’s the hope of the Obama administration. And, with no other options currently planned, the hopes of those of us interested in furthered manned space exploration too.