For SpaceX, the Real Mission Begins Tonight

Ready for a New Era

With roughly two hours until the scheduled liftoff of the Falcon 9 and Dragon Capsule in support of NASA’s CRS-1 flight to the International Space Station, the pre-season for SpaceX, and for space commerce is rapidly coming to a close.

Although by most appearances this flight is nearly identical to the highly successful COTS 2/3 mission this past May, there is a subtle but distinct difference. Like much else involving space, it begins with the launch vehicle.  Weather and circumstances permitting,  this evening’s flight will mark the fourth launch of the Falcon 9, but it is the first which does not include the word “test” in the mission description. For the Dragon it is the third flight overall, but only the second as a fully functional spacecraft equipped with solar panels and the  support systems.

Nevertheless, for SpaceX, as well as the NASA personnel who championed the COTS/CRS program  the distinction is real.

The CRS-1 launch is generally described the as the “first of 12 scheduled launches under CRS,” with Orbital Sciences  manifested for another 8.  Yet with the station’s future apparently secure through at least 2020, there would appear to be more unassigned cargo flights than the total number assigned at this point.  And that is just for ISS.  The basic structure of this flight, as a space supply run under a performance contract with a private corporation, as opposed to a public/private “test” flight, is a transaction strikingly similar to one which functions as the key underpinnings of global commerce, routine delivery around the world by UPS or Federal Express.

More complicated, and vastly more expensive? Yes,  but on the other hand, the package dropped off on your doorstep by a very mundane panel van, made part of the trip on a cargo version 747 , and those aren’t exactly simple either, or cheap.

So why we may justifiably bemoan the lack of domestic crewed launch capability, (for which this flight is helping to steadily prove the hardware and systems) and still sorely miss the Shuttle,  tonight’s launch is still the start of something big.  The commercial supply service now being contracted for ISS can, and eventually will be readily extended to new orbits, new destinations and for new purposes.

For some, supply may be boring, it may be mundane,  but wars have been won and lost on the issue of supply lines alone,  causing nations and  empires to prosper or starve.  Fortunately, tonight’s launch has nothing so dire riding on it. But as we still struggle to find a way to afford space exploration, the advent of commercial supply service is a turning point, a hinge of history which just might finally swing us towards Mars.

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