SpaceX Demo Flight to ISS Set for February 7

SpaceX Demo Flight to ISS Set for February 7

NASA announced today that SpaceX will launch its pathbreaking demonstration commercial cargo flight to the International Space Station (ISS) on February 7, 2012.  Pending final safety reviews and tests, it also is allowing the company to combine its second and third test flights as it requested.

SpaceX is one of two companies working with NASA under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to develop systems to take cargo to the ISS now that the space shuttle program has ended.    SpaceX conducted the first test of its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft in December 2010.   Two more test flights were planned to demonstrate the ability to rendezvous and berth to the ISS, but SpaceX asked to combine them into a single mission after the success of the earlier flight.

NASA’s announcement today stopped short of final approval for combining the two tests, which will require “final safety reviews, testing and verification.”    NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier said “There is still a significant amount of critical work to be completed before launch, but the teams have a sound plan…”

The agency is anxious for SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp., NASA’s other COTS partner, to initiate their commercial cargo services.  Orbital has not yet launched its Taurus II launch vehicle or Cygnus spacecraft.  Both companies plan to begin offering commercial services in 2012, however.     The space shuttle was the primary means of taking cargo to (and from) the ISS.    Although there are other non-U.S. spacecraft that can deliver cargo to the ISS — Russia’s Progress, Europe’s ATV and Japan’s HTV — the United States itself has no means at all today to send either cargo or crews there.   NASA also is working with SpaceX and other companies to develop a “commercial crew” capability that it hopes will result in a U.S. commercial human spaceflight transportation system in the middle of this decade.

Taking people to and from low Earth orbit (LEO, where the ISS is located) was relegated to the commercial sector instead of NASA by President Obama in February 2011.  The decision was very controversial and Congress has not provided as much funding for NASA to assist the commercial companies as the President requested, making the timing of when such services will be available open to question.   Congress instead directed NASA to proceed with developing a new spacecraft and launch system to take astronauts beyond LEO and to serve as a backup in case the commercial plans fall through.  NASA’s system is not expected to be ready to launch people anywhere until 2021, however.

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