Until recently, there have been two classes of people playing with rockets: those of us who enjoy playing with small (and not so small) toy models in our backyards and open fields, and the governments, who get the big boy toys to do some serious rocketry. Recently, private companies have been getting into the act and showing what can be done.
A few years ago, Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne completed the unprecedented act of putting a human into space (the edge of space, mind you) and returning him safely to Earth. Yesterday, the Space Exploration Technologies corporation one-upped them by becoming the first nongovernmental entity to put a vehicle into low Earth orbit.
SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft has been designed to carry a crew of up to seven (or cargo) into a low Earth orbit, and return them to Earth safely. It has been developed as part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program and is ultimately designed to pick up where the Space Shuttle will leave off, ferrying people and cargo to and from the ISS.
Wednesday morning, an unmanned and unladen Dragon spaceship was perched atop a two stage Falcon 9 rocket set to head off to orbit. Lift off from Cape Canaveral occurred at 10:43am; at T +10:00 the Dragon capsule successfully separated from the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and entered a near circular orbit at an altitude ranging from 288km to 301km (178-187mi) above the planet.
While in orbit, engineers put the Dragon craft through a battery of tests and maneuvers to explore its capabilities. After just over three hours and two orbits of Earth, a deceleration burn was carried out, which sent Dragon plummeting back to Terra firma. The heat shield, critical to any space craft surviving re-entry, held and the craft safely splashed down in the Pacific Ocean at 2:02pm, landing about 500 miles west of Baja California.
This represents a milestone in the private space industry, but only a single step in a series for the Dragon program at SpaceX. Two more launches are scheduled over the next 18 months, hopefully culminating in approval from NASA to dock with the ISS. From there, manned flights become a real possibility. Then the doors may swing wide open on the private space travel industry.
Video of the launch can be viewed through NASA’s website.