Yesterday, SpaceX became the very first commercial company in history to re-enter spacecraft from low-Earth orbit. Another first was on November 23rd when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a first-ever license for a commercially developed spacecraft to re-enter Earth's atmosphere from orbit. The recent launch of the Dragon spacecraft atop the Falcon 9 rocket by SpaceX could be the beginning of a new, uncharted era for NASA. The Falcon 9 is a two-stage, liquid-fueled rocket, which may eventually carry up to seven astronauts to the International Space Station. According to the news announcement on the SpaceX website: "After the Space Shuttle retires, SpaceX will fly at least 12 missions to carry cargo to and from the ISS as part of the Commercial Resupply Services contract for NASA."
If the mission proves successful, it could usher in a golden age of commercial space launches. If unsuccessful, it could signal an unstable era where we are dependent on Russia and have limited access to space. The problem is cost. It costs $10,000 to put a pound of anything into orbit. Given the country's tough economic times, President Obama gave the space program a triple whammy: canceling the space shuttle, canceling its replacement, and canceling the moon program. Some critics have said that NASA is becoming an "agency to nowhere."
That is where SpaceX comes in. The goal of the project is to reduce the cost of space travel by relying on private enterprise. Today, it costs $800 million for every space shuttle mission. This cost could be reduced by free market forces, but the question is whether the market ready for a commercial manned space program? And is there enough of a market to justify a commercial manned space program?
So far, so good. The Falcon 9 rocket had a successful test launch this summer, and the current launch has gone well. Remarkably, the project was rapidly put together in just four years on a shoestring budget. But many hurdles remain. One big problem is that manned missions are much more costly and complex than cargo missions. The life support systems are a huge headache to any engineer who has to create a rocket that can safely carry astronauts into space.
But another question remains: where will these astronauts go? The space station, in some sense, is just spinning wheels around the earth. So NASA needs to have a concrete goal in space. Earlier this year in February, the President released the FY 2011 Budget request proposing several exciting new programs that seek to foster a sustainable human space exploration enterprise. Some of this includes several Exploration Study Teams specializing in a variety of objectives including: Flagship Technology Demonstrations, Commercial Crew & Cargo, Enabling Technology Development & Demonstration, Exploration Precursor Robotic Missions, Human Research and Heavy Life/Propulsion Technologies. Click here to review the FY 2011 Budget Overview; This will give you a more detailed vision of some of NASA's plans for the next few years.
There are several possibilities. One is to land on an asteroid, or maybe a comet. Another is to go to the Lagrange points surrounding the Earth-moon system (where gravity balances out). Another is to land on the moons of Mars (since you would not need a lot of rocket fuel for a return mission from Mars itself). Another is to send our astronauts on a one-way ticket to Mars (so they would eventually die on the red planet). Perhaps a more practical goal would be to send astronauts on a one-way ticket to Mars and then have them create their own rocket fuel for the return mission, from oxygen and hydrogen from ice. That would give them an incentive to successfully electrolyze water into rocket fuel!
Here are some interesting links that will help you keep up to speed with all of the new developments (including photo & video galleries):
Watch the SpaceX Falcon 9: Post-Mission Press Conference