According to the AFP newswire, the first test of the commercial spacecraft Dragon, by SpaceX will take place in March, heralding a new age in space travel where vehicles made by commercial companies send craft into space rather than it being the sole domain of government entities such as NASA.
Dragon which is owned by SpaceX, could launch as early as March 20, which would have it docking with the International Space Station (ISS ) a few days later. Dragon was founded by Internet entrepreneur and PayPal founder, Elon Musk; the name refers to its original moniker, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, which according to the SpaceX site, was started in 2002. The company’s initial projects, the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 were space boosters designed to send a payload into space. Because of the the company demonstrated with those ventures, NASA awarded the company a contract to build and run the Dragon project.
Up till now, the only commercial vehicle to go into space has been the Virgin Galactic manned Spaceship Two, which won the X-Prize for being the first to do so. That vehicle just barely makes into space, and some argue that it actually only goes as far as the outer atmosphere. The Dragon, in contrast will travel into “real” space where it will hook up and eventually deliver supplies to the ISS. The company says it’s not beyond the pale to imagine one day carrying passengers as well, due to the fact that it will of course carry life support from the outside to provide for the crew.
The SpaceX project is a big deal to NASA since the retirement of the Space Shuttle has literally left the country beholden to the Russians to carry people and cargo to the ISS, which is a gamble, because it’s a relationship that could be severed at any time. Also because of recent setbacks by the Russian space agency, most notably the failure of its Mars explorer to make it past the Earth’s orbit, there are questions about how reliable and safe that option will be in the future.
Dragon’s first mission will be a fly-by of the ISS to make sure things are all as they should be. After that a flight will be scheduled where Dragon will actually dock with the station using existing technology on the ISS. Following the conclusion of its mission, Dragon will splash down off the coast of California in the Pacific Ocean, where it will be retrieved by SpaceX.