The flight of the Dragon

What would you do with hundreds of millions of dollars? Buy a mansion, a yacht, a private jet? How about starting a rocket company? That’s what entrepreneur Elon Musk did in 2002, when he founded SpaceX, and ten years later he’s reaping the benefits. Ten years is a rather long time to start making a profit, but the spaceship business is financially risky. You must be driven by a real passion for spaceflight and be able to accomplish technical milestones expeditiously, or else you are very likely to go out of business even before your first rocket takes off.

Credit: ESA/NASA 

Credit: ESA/NASA

History was made on May 25th when the Dragon spacecraft, designed and built by SpaceX, reached the International Space Station (ISS) with cargo supplies.  This was a demonstration flight to show NASA and its international partners that a private corporation can reach low-Earth orbit and service the ISS just as well as government agencies have done until now. A video of the approach of the space capsule to the ISS is shown here.

SpaceX is a company of young people. The average age of its employees is 30. This is part of the competitive edge that has allowed it to design, build and test space vehicles for a fraction of what it costs NASA.  According to Elon Musk, the success of the company has been possible by combining  “the experience of age with the vibrancy of youth”.

Part of the experience in the company comes from former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman, who oversees astronaut safety for future manned missions. Even though SpaceX has not made public when or how it will hire astronauts, it has made clear that the Dragon capsule is intended to be human-rated, and will be capable of carrying a crew of up to 7, like the retired NASA space shuttle.

SpaceX is leading a new development in transportation above Earth’s atmosphere. Indeed, the company is spearheading one of the most innovative business models of the last 50 years, betting as it did that what NASA used to do with the space shuttle for three decades at around half a billion dollars per launch, it can do much cheaper. A number of other companies have their own projects in the pipeline to provide reliable, cost-effective access to space. But Elon Musk’s baby is already signing contracts with different entities that have chosen to use its services. For example, a little-known fact about the latest flight is that the Falcon 9 rocket (also designed and built by SpaceX) that served as the vehicle for Dragon also carried cremated remains of some 300 people (including a few celebrities), a service made available by a company called Celestis. The Mexican satellite company Satmex will launch Satmex 7, a communications satellite, on a Falcon 9 by 2015.

Research and development activities, such as those carried out by universities, institutes and other academic and industrial organizations, will also likely benefit from the emergence of commercial spaceflight providers, like SpaceX. A growing number of researchers are interested in flying their biological, material science and human health experiments aboard space vehicles, because the zero-gravity environment that an orbital flight can offer is essential to understand many physical and chemical processes that would be impossible to reproduce on Earth. Suggestions have been made as to how to use the Dragon capsule to study the effects of weightlessness and cosmic radiation on the human body, in preparation for a long-term mission to Mars.

The possible uses of spaceflight are almost endless. We are witnessing the beginning of a business that will not only change the way we think about space, but that may very well carry our children routinely around Earth once every 90 minutes.


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