Private spaceflight has been inching along for the last several years, but next month may be a major stepping stone for the industry: SpaceX's Dragon capsule is scheduled to launch on April 30 on an unmanned cargo delivery mission to the International Space Station, offering NASA (and anyone else) a significantly cheaper way to get to orbit.
SpaceX has a tentative (and very narrow) launch window for April 30 to send its Dragon capsule up on a Falcon 9 rocket to dock with the ISS on May 3. Like the Russian Progress and European ATV cargo capsules, Dragon will be completely unmanned, performing its orbital rendezvous under autonomous computer control.
The big advantage of the Dragon capsule, besides being unencumbered by massive government bureaucracy, is that it's reusable. Other cargo capsules are designed to be emptied at the ISS, restocked with garbage, and then sent off to commit suicide in the upper atmosphere, while crew capsules (such as Russia's Soyuz) can make it back to Earth safely but are then scrapped. Dragon, on the other hand, can be launched, recovered and reused multiple times, making each launch significantly cheaper: NASA would be paying about $133 million for a Dragon launch, versus about $300 million for a European ATV launch.
Dragon can handle 13,000 pounds of cargo or up to seven crew members, which should certainly be appealing for NASA, but remember that SpaceX is a private company. SpaceX can sell cargo and passenger space to whoever has the scratch, including scientists with microgravity experiments, tourists and
bloggers being sponsored by the Syfy channel blog editors who don't let their writers have any fun (Fixed! -Ed). SpaceX is out to prove that private industry really can compete with the big boys by offering better service at a cheaper price, and the hope is that this Dragon launch will set a precedent for future commercial spaceflight opportunities.
If we're lucky, Dragon will lift off at the end of next month. We're not entirely sure what's going to be on board this first mission, but we figure there's got to be some of that freeze-dried ice cream and maybe some new Lego sets or something. We'd suggest clean pairs of underwear as well, but apparently astronauts have no need for 'em. Ew.