SpaceX puts Dragon 9 space capsule on display in D.C.

February 10, 2011

Mounted on a platform inside a tent at 10th and K streets NW, the Dragon 9 capsule looked awfully good for a piece of equipment that launched into orbit, circled the Earth and then splashed down into the Pacific.

The side that leaned forward as it descended had scorch marks, the heat shield had turned from yellow to charcoal gray, and the parachute holds were empty because their contents had been used during descent.

But the capsule, say officials from SpaceX Corp., which manufactured and launched it, is in solid enough shape to be rehabilitated and reused - something that has never happened before.

That, they say, is but one of several noteworthy aspects of their December launch in Florida. Others include the low cost of the mission and the fact that the rocket and capsule were designed and financed primarily by a private company.

With Congress preparing in the weeks ahead to again address the question of government contracts for commercial space businesses such as SpaceX, the company wanted to give it (and attendees of the nearby FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference) an opportunity to see the capsule. Members of Congress and of the Obama administration were invited to attend a Thursday evening viewing, and company officials said the response has been enthusiastic.

"For most people on Capitol Hill, they can't afford the time to travel to California and see what we've done," said Elon Musk , founder and president of SpaceX. "So we brought the capsule here to show them. Lawmakers have been focused very internally, and most are not aware this was part of quite an historic event."

But it was also controversial, as some saw the launch as a risky move away from the way NASA has historically done business. Republicans opposed to President Obama's approach to space travel, as well as representatives of both parties with large NASA installations in their states and districts, have responded negatively to the administration's desire to put substantial amounts of money into contracts for new and largely untested commercial space companies.

That opposition has subsided to some extent - especially after big companies such as Boeing announced plans to compete for NASA contracts to take cargo and, later, crews to the international space station.

Former astronaut Ken Bowersox, now in charge of astronaut safety and mission preparedness for SpaceX, stood shivering beside the capsule Thursday, having just finished several interviews with Japanese and Korean television crews.

Looking forward to meeting political leaders in the evening, he said: "People are starting to accept this is how we're going to go forward. . . . Our success in December changed some minds, but we have a ways to go."

The display was outside of a showroom just opened to launch and sell another product from Musk - the all-electric Tesla Roadster. The $100,000-plus car has become popular among some high-end buyers on the West Coast, and Musk is now taking his roadster east.

While the Tesla is beyond the means of most people, Musk said he intends to sell electric cars in the $30,000 to $40,000 range within four or five years. "Some people complain about the loss of innovation in the United States," he said, "but we think it's alive and well."

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