05.25.12

SpaceX’s Dragon: NASA’s Bold New Mission

For the first time, a commercial craft docked at the International Space Station. Daniel Stone talks to the man who coordinated the venture on what’s next for private exploration—and how Congress is holding things up.

As the sun set over the southern Indian Ocean on Friday, NASA came within about 10 meters of history. For the first time ever in orbit, a private space craft crept closer to the International Space Station. And there, on the dark side of the planet, the two floating objects closed the space between them. “We might have some history made here in the next few minutes,” the missions’ narrator, Bruce Buckingham, announced to the control room’s breathless technicians.

It turns out they did. “Capture is confirmed,” Buckingham said a few moments later. "You’ve made a lot of folks happy out here in Hawthorne and of course in Houston,” another voice said, referencing the headquarter points of Space Exploration Technologies (or Space X) in California and NASA mission control in Texas. The final union occurred just over the northwest tip of Australia.

High fives went around to celebrate the literal high five that had just occurred above everyone’s heads. The docking capped off a three-year overlap of the government’s public space program with the private Space X, the leading company on propulsion, orbit, and space exploration technology. The successful mission proved that the two could work together. And it forecasts bigger projects ahead, like space tourism and further exploration of the solar system.

I caught up with NASA's Phil McAlister this morning while visiting the Bill Press Show on Current TV. McAlister runs NASA’s Commercial Spaceflight Development program, which oversaw the partnership with SpaceX on this week’s mission. Linking the private spacecraft to the government-funded Space Station is a notable accomplishment, he said, but its real import might be in what comes next.

“We are trying to move the more routine operations of cargo and eventually crew delivery to the ISS to the private sector,” McAlister said. “And with the cost savings we’ll achieve by doing that, we can plow that money back into NASA’s programs.”

Those programs are ambitious. As part of his reorganization of NASA in 2010, President Obama signaled that he wanted the agency to stop its research in Lower Earth Orbit (LEO) with vehicles like the Space Shuttle, the fleet of which was retired this year and transported to museums around the country. Instead, he wanted the government’s dollars and technical know-how to focus on loftier goals: returning to the moon, landing on Mars, and one day visiting nearby asteroids.

To get those projects started, NASA has begun developing a heavy launch vehicle capable of deep space travel. The project is currently slated to be ready around 2017, but bickering in Congress over how to fund it—and whether to fund it—has set it back. Lawmakers in Gulf states like Texas and Florida, where the space program has traditionally been based, have been unwilling to shift lucrative government contracts to places like Arizona and California where newer, sleeker contractors are based, many of whom could do the government’s work quicker and for less money.

The company is more of a government contractor than a completely private entrepreneurial venture.

The other piece of the puzzle, according to McAlister, is filling the government’s void in LEO missions. Servicing the ISS with food and water, not to mention experiments to be conducted in space, takes enormous time and expense. Shifting that responsibility to the lowest-bidding companies cuts costs and lets government engineers shift their gazes onto bigger goals.

The shift isn’t seamless, though. NASA has so far spent $380 million on the SpaceX mission (the company threw in about the same amount). It has 12 more cargo missions ordered for the next five years. That makes the Hawthorne-based company more of a government contractor than a completely private entrepreneurial venture. NASA has had a similar agreement with legacy contractors like Lockheed Martin and Boeing for decades—both helped design major NASA projects like the Saturn 5 rocket, the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle. So the partnership with Space X is more of a cost-cutting measure for NASA rather than a forging of completely new ground.

That’s because no matter how much private companies want to step up, the government is still the central player in space travel and exploration, and perhaps always will be. There’s no actual customer base for space exploration, which makes the federal space program the only way to make lift-offs possible.

Still, it’s not just money blasted into space, never to return. NASA officials think the government's investment will lead to new things, like new markets and economic growth.

“If you look back at the airline industry, the first contracts were government airmail contracts that really started that industry,” McAlister explained this morning. And then over time you saw that shift to the private sector and so prices came down and seats became more available. We hope to see that same sort of transition into lower earth orbit in the next five or 10 years.”