A Giant Leap for Commercial Spaceflight

A small Malaysian satellite was delivered to orbit late Monday night from the tiny atoll of Kwajalein far off in the Pacific Ocean and thousands of miles from the U.S. mainland.

Forty years after the first moon landing and over half a century after Sputnik, the launch of small satellites has become routine. But this one was special -- or rather, its launcher was. Launched two days before the fortieth anniversary of the launch of Apollo XI (the anniversary of the moon landing itself will be on Monday, July 20), it was the first satellite delivered by a privately funded liquid rocket.

The event may have been a significant nail in the coffin of what many view as NASA's current flawed plans for a return to the moon in the coming decade.

It was delivered by a Falcon 1, the first rocket developed by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, California. It was the fifth flight of the vehicle and the second successful one, the first three having failed with customer payloads aboard. The two most recent consecutive successes are a large boost for the prospects of not just the Falcon 1, which has a limited market and was more of a learning tool for the new company, but the much larger Falcon 9, planned to make its first flight out of Cape Canaveral late this year.

The two vehicles share many components, particularly the engine (also developed from scratch by SpaceX) which is used in both stages, so confidence in its own upcoming success will be increased considerably.

So what does this have to do with NASA's planned Constellation program for a lunar return?

It is currently under fire as a result of serious technical issues for the planned new launchers, with exploding cost estimates and schedule slips. Accordingly, to provide information for Charles Bolden, the incoming NASA administrator, they are under review by a panel of experts led by space industry veteran Norman Augustine. The current plan is a new rocket called Ares 1, for launching the crew, and Ares V, a heavy-lift vehicle for delivering the other payloads needed for a lunar mission. Both vehicles are based on a new version of the Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster and an updated version of the J2-S  LOX-hydrogen engine that was used on the Saturn V for Apollo.

The Augustine panel will be reviewing alternatives to it and was already briefed on them in June.

Among those alternatives are using the existing or modified commercial Atlas and Delta rockets provided by the United Launch Alliance (a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin), a different Shuttle-derived concept developed by some renegade NASA employees called DIRECT, and a late entrant -- a Shuttle-derived heavy lifter, presented to the panel by John Shannon, the current head of the Shuttle program.

The latter appears to be the official NASA fallback position should the current Constellation plans, which no longer have a NASA administrator to defend them (though he continues to do so from his new position on the faculty of the University of Alabama in Huntsville), be radically altered.

But one other option on the table -- at least to close the "gap" caused by the fact that the Shuttle is planned to be retired in 2010, while the new rocket and crew capsule are now not expected before 2016 or 2017 -- is the SpaceX Falcon 9 and SpaceX's own crew capsule, named the Dragon.

Falcon 9 and Dragon were developed with SpaceX's own money, though the company has received some NASA funds via the Commercial Space Transportation Services (COTS) program, designed to help with space station logistics after Shuttle retirement. COTS funds currently are only to support cargo missions, but there are plans, not currently funded, for a COTS "D" -- a version designed to carry passengers for crew change-out.