SpaceX Breaks Ground, Dragon Berths and a New Era Begins

Artists Rendering of South Texas Launch Pad: Credit SpaceX

Drawing a dramatic seven day period to a close, the SpaceX CRS-4 Dragon spacecraft was successfully berthed to the International Space Station at 8:21 am CDT this morning.

One week ago today, SpaceX was named one of two winners in the final phase of NASA’s Commercial Crew Competition. In between, SpaceX conducted a weather delayed, but otherwise flawless 8th flight of the Falcon 9 booster, and then yesterday broke ground on a new commercial spaceport in Texas.  Taken together, the events of the past week mark the beginning of a new era for SpaceX, the U.S. launch industry, and the American space program as a whole.

When the Commercial Crew announcements were made last week, much of the initial attention focused on the fact that Boeing received the larger of the two awards, a potential $4.2 versus $2.6 billion.  The key word however, is potential,  and much further along than aerospace stalwart Boeing in terms of actual development, it is SpaceX which appears most likely to be the first commercial provider to the launch pad.

It was a new launch pad entirely, which drew SpaceX Founder Elon Musk, Governor Rick Perry and a host of dignitaries to a groundbreaking ceremony near Brownsville on the Texas Gulf Coast on Monday. Although major construction is not set to begin until the second half of 2015, the spaceport project which officially began yesterday will allow SpaceX to specifically tailor its commercial launch operations to the needs of the Geostationary ComSat market, and in the process further solidifying the gains originally made on price, which are now being backed by a rapidly growing record of launch success with the Falcon 9 V1.1.

Although the focus at the Boca Chica site will initially be on 12 missions allowed under the existing agreement, a perpetually forward looking Musk observed ““I would expect commercial astronauts, private astronauts, to be departing from South Texas,” going on to suggest that the site might even host the first crewed mission to Mars.

While the Texas spaceport was the site of Monday’s activities, Musk pointed that it is the conversion of the Kennedy Space Center’s launch pad 39A which will absorb much of the company’s ground engineering efforts over the coming year, as it sets the stage for NASA missions, both robotic and crewed, to lift off NASA owned facilities beginning in 2016.

With both commercial and civil governmental customers soon to receive the benefits of their own dedicated launch facilities in Texas and at KSC respectively, SpaceX is also creating the space, both physical and in timing, to press home its efforts to win what has thus far been the most elusive of the three elements of the launch industry it has been pursuing since the first flight of the original Falcon 9 in June 2010,  the Air Force and defense market wrapped up in the currrent EELV program.

NASA TV  Screenshot of Dragon CRS-4 berthing

NASA TV Screenshot of Dragon CRS-4 berthing

 

 

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