With milestone launch, SpaceX aims to make space cheap — and cool

A new era in spaceflight blasted off early Tuesday with the launch of a rocket designed, built and flown by SpaceX, a 10-year-old U.S. company.

The rocket lofted an unmanned capsule, which Friday will become the first commercial craft to attempt to dock with the International Space Station. For NASA, the moment marked a transition. Instead of flying the space shuttle, the agency is now renting rides into space. Here are some facts about SpaceX:

Q: Why is NASA pursuing this new strategy?

A: The space shuttles were old, expensive and unsafe. After the last shuttle’s retirement, NASA — at the behest of Congress and both President George W. Bush and President Obama —is instead seeding a new U.S. commercial space industry. With competition and innovation expected to drive down the cost of routine launches, NASA can focus instead on developing future deep-space missions.


SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, shown in 2011 unveiling the Falcon Heavy rocket at the National Press Club in Washington. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Q: How is the SpaceX spacecraft different from a space shuttle?

A: The company’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule are much smaller than the shuttle and carry less cargo. With construction of the space station complete, NASA didn’t need a vehicle as large as the shuttle. Unlike the shuttle, which landed on a runway, Dragon will splash down in the ocean, off the coast of California. Although the current Dragon is unmanned, SpaceX plans to upgrade the vehicle to— someday — carry as many as seven passengers into orbit and back to Earth.

Q: What is the goal of the current mission?

A: It’s a shakedown cruise. SpaceX has to prove that it is ready to fulfill a NASA contract to send a dozen supply-stuffed Dragon capsules to the space station over the next five to seven years. If Dragon does dock with the station as planned, it will signal that SpaceX is ready to move from vehicle development to regular operations.

Q: Is the commercial space strategy really saving NASA money?

A: A NASA report published last year found that the development costs of the Falcon 9 rocket were about a third of what NASA would have spent. That’s a huge savings to NASA. Instead of micromanaging vehicle design and construction, NASA instead handed $381 million in seed cash to SpaceX and let the company find ways to be efficient. SpaceX officials love to talk about how they save money. Theybuild rockets from scratch at a site near Los Angeles. Keeping construction compact saves money. The company is using a refurbished launch pad at Cape Canaveral — which was a lot cheaper than building a new one. When the company needed a fuel tank for the pad, they bought one from the Air Force for a dollar over scrap. SpaceX rockets also require fewer people to build, launch and operate than the shuttle did. There’s no standing army of shuttle workers to pay year-round for just a few launches. Everything about SpaceX’s operations — including the modest, metal-sided launch center on Cape Canaveral — screams “efficiency.” And it should. SpaceX founder Elon Musk is in this business to make money.

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