SpaceX’s Dragon capsule completed a nearly perfect flight this morning, splashing down as planned in the Pacific Ocean within a mile of its target. It replicated everything that the Gemini series of flights in the sixties did in a single flight — getting to orbit, performing a rendezvous with another object, closely approaching it, berthing to it, detaching from it, and entering the atmosphere to be retrieved by a ship — except that it was entirely unmanned (so no spacewalk — that will await flights with crew aboard). The only problem encountered was an issue with the LIDAR, the laser rangefinder that helps it determine how far away it was from the International Space Station (ISS). One of the two redundant LIDAR systems was being confused by a retroreflector on the Japanese Kibo module, and the software had to be adjusted for it, resulting in a slight delay in the berthing last Friday.
What is the significance of this successful flight?
First, it has demonstrated that the company has both a launch system and a capsule that is capable of performing the missions assigned to it. The Falcon 9 launcher has now flown three times successfully (with some minor issues on the first flight) with no failures. The second and third launches seem to have been picture perfect. While this is no guarantee that it will never fail, it provides a lot more confidence for future flights than would be the case had there been a failure.
In fact, it was such a good demonstration of not just the Falcon 9, but the company’s hard-won ability to design new launchers, that this week, they signed up a new commercial launch customer for a vehicle they have not yet flown — the Falcon Heavy. The vehicle is not scheduled to fly until next year at the earliest, and then only out of Vandenberg Air Force Base, which is not a good launch site for putting satellites into geostationary orbit. Vandenberg a relatively high latitude (about 34 degrees), while GEO is equatorial (zero degrees) in inclination, and a launch system pays a big penalty to go to inclinations below the latitude of its launch site. Yet Intelsat has enough confidence in the company that they are willing to buy a ride on a rocket that hasn’t flown, from a launch site that doesn’t yet exist (the facilities at the company’s pad at Cape Canaveral, from which the Falcon Heavy will launch to GEO, will probably have to be modified). Yet the well-established comsat company is willing to bet on the SpaceX team.
Second, it means that the company can now start to fulfill its Cargo Resupply Services (CRS) contract, which helped fund the spacecraft’s development, and start getting significant revenue by flying cargo to and from the ISS, likely starting this August. SpaceX was only paid ten million for this launch under its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contract (five million each for the two demonstration missions that it combined into one), but under CRS, it will be selling at least a dozen flights at about $130M per flight.
Third, it means that it can not only deliver cargo to ISS, but return it as well, something that no other existing vehicle can do since the shuttle retired last summer.