Last month SpaceX completed the first Commercial Orbital Transportation Services or COTS test flight. COTS was set up in January 2006 by NASA, under the leadership of Dr. Griffin, to have commercial companies compete for a contract to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. This was done because the Constellation Program was designed to leave Low Earth Orbit work to the commercial companies (once they learned how to do the job reliably) while the Constellation Program would eventually concentrate on missions to the Moon and other deep space manned activities. Constellation was killed by Obama and Senator Bill Nelson of Florida (and former Congresswoman Kosmas who was fired last November by the KSC workers she represented.) during a very public address at the O&C building at Kennedy Space Center April 15th, 2010 but the COTS program continued and SpaceX flew their first demonstration flight in December of 2010, one month shy of 6 years after the start of the program, using their Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon capsule.
As many of my readers know, I have fought long and hard to preserve our Human Space Flight Program and always felt that Constellation was our best option. Though I disagreed with the “New Space Boys” that commercial space companies, such as SpaceX, was ready to take over our nation’s HSF program, I always said that they still had a place in our nation’s space plans. I do want commercial companies to succeed and am encouraged to see them learn all they can about “rocket science.” I just don’t think they are ready to take over the entire HSF for our nation at the expense of Constellation or the taxpayer.
COTS is a great area for commercial companies to learn how to launch rockets, rendezvous with football field length space stations traveling 17,500 mph 250 miles up, and deliver cargo reliably and safely. Several companies had applied for the first round of COTS, but SpaceX is the only company not only to fly, but to successfully complete the first round. They not only did it, but did it well with the Dragon Capsule landing within 2,400 feet of the intended landing zone in the Pacific from what I’ve heard.
There were few problems during this test flight, and none of them affected the mission. They wanted to recover the 1st stage booster, but I understand it was lost in the Atlantic Ocean. They also had an engine failure on the orbiting stage, but the other engines performed well and kept Dragon on course. One interesting problem they had occurred prior to launch, and had made the news, was a crack in one of the engine bells or nozzle of the second stage. They flew in a technician from their facility in CA and he cut out the damaged section and used duct tape to repair the nozzle. It of course worked fine and many old time space guys talked about how it reminded them of the old days of Mercury and Gemini. That is nice, but once SpaceX is carrying NASA payloads and astronauts instead of a wheel of cheese, duct tape repairs will be a thing of memory and not allowed. I discussed the future NASA oversight SpaceX and other commercial companies will face once they start carrying USA taxpayer payloads and US astronauts in a past post here.
Overall, I have to give SpaceX credit. They did exceptionally well and I wish them much luck in their studies to join the giants of NASA whose shoulders they currently stand on. Well done SpaceX.