Monday, September 29, 2008

One High-Flying Business

The Chinese space walk got more attention, but this past weekend marked another milestone in space flight when a low-cost commercial rocket lifted off from a small Pacific atoll and successfully placed a 364-pound dummy payload in orbit. The launch followed three glitchy attempts by privately held Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, to reach orbit with one if its Falcon 1 rockets. (The image above is from SpaceX, which also has posted video from the flight.)

SpaceX was established in 2002 by Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal and the Zip2 Corp and Inc. magazine's Entrepreneur of the Year in 2007. Musk has big plans for his El Segundo, Calif., rocket company, beyond its already busy manifest of unmanned military and commercial payloads. Under a contract from NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, SpaceX is developing a spacecraft that could be used to ferry astronauts and cargo to and from the International Space Station after the shuttles are retired. The SpaceX contribution to this government-funded competition is Dragon, a spacecraft designed to carry up to seven astronauts. The Dragon capsule would be orbited by a heavy-lift Falcon 9 rocket, the first of which SpaceX plans to test from Cape Canaveral next year.

In an online Q&A with last week, Musk mused about some other long-term plans, including the possibility of using one of his boosters to launch interplanetary space probes. "My interest is very much in the direction of Mars, so a Mars lander of some kind might be the next step," he said. He also answered a question about using Dragon for a flight around the moon -- an idea Musk called "conceivable."

Jeff Foust, editor and publisher of The Space Review, summed up the significance of Falcon 1's first orbital success to the future of privately funded space ventures:
"SpaceX, and other NewSpace ventures like it, carry the promise of dramatically changing the space industry with low-cost orbital and suborbital launch options that open up new and potentially lucrative new markets. That promise, though, has remained just that -- a promise, not a reality -- since SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize four years ago. Sunday's launch was perhaps the biggest milestone since then in demonstrating what NewSpace can offer."

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