June 06, 2012
Credit: SpaceX photo
Space Exploration Technologies’ unmanned Dragon capsule arrived in Los Angeles on June 5 following a test flight for NASA that could open the door to a long-desired and more elusive customer - the U.S. military.
The cargo capsule blasted off May on 22 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida and three days later became the first privately owned spaceship to reach the International Space Station, a $100 billion project of 15 nations that flies some 240 miles (390 km) above Earth.
Dragon splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on May 31 and was returned by barge to the Port of Los Angeles before dawn on Tuesday.
The successful test flight not only means Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, can start working off a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to fly cargo to the space station. It also clears a key hurdle for SpaceX to compete for Department of Defense business as well, which would mean launching military satellites [see Aviation Week & Space Technology, May 28, p.35].
Dragon’s launch was the third successive flight of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which debuted in June 2010.
Flying three times successfully was among the criteria the company needed to meet to become eligible to compete for military business under a new program designed to draw competition into a field now monopolized by United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Boeing and Lockheed Martin .
”The new entrant criteria did say three launches are required (for Falcon 9) before certification can happen for national security payloads,” said SpaceX Communications Director Kirstin Brost Grantham.
There are several paths toward certification, and the requirements can vary, Air Force spokeswoman Tracy Bunko said.
“If the new entrant has a launch vehicle with a more robust, demonstrated successful flight history, then we may require less technical evaluation for certification. But, it also depends on the risk assessment of the mission,” Bunko wrote in an email to Reuters.