What goes up, most come down. And if it flies through U.S. airspace, it needs Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval. SpaceX (News - Alert) is the first-ever commercial company to get an FAA license to re-enter a spacecraft from orbit.
This isn't the first time the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation has issued a license for commercial operations, mind you, but the more than 200 launches approved since 1984 have all gone up without the expectation of a controlled re-entry with a recoverable vehicle.
The FAA license, good for a year from date of issue, clears the way for SpaceX to launch its first full-up test of the Dragon capsule on top of its Falcon 9 rocket next month, with a target date around Dec. 7. If all goes according to plan, Dragon will reach low earth orbit (LEO), go around for four orbits to test navigation, communications, and on-board systems, and then re-enter the atmosphere to splashdown in the Pacific Ocean a few hours after launch.
Only six nations or agencies have previously done launch-and-return operators from LEO: The U.S., Russia, China, Japan, India and the European Space Agency.
The December 7 launch will be the first demonstration flight under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program for commercial resupply of the International Space Station (ISS). SpaceX has a commercial resupply services contract to make at least 12 flights for cargo resupply to the ISS.
With a "downmass" capability, Dragon is uniquely equipped among the current crop of unmanned supply vehicles that service the ISS and will be able to return experiments and other materials to Earth. In theory, the Russian Progress could be used for downmass transport; it is a derivative of the Soyuz manned vehicle, but today, it just gets loaded with trash and set back into the atmosphere to burn up. The European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) also goes up with supplies and re-enters with trash, but the European Space Agency has discussed adding a re-entry capability in the future to support both downmass and ultimately manned crew transport.
In addition, the Falcon 9/Dragon combination is ultimately to be evolved to carry astronauts into orbit to the ISS and commercial space stations, so the COTS and CRS flights will provide "valuable flight experience" towards that goal. Needless to say, there's a lot at stake for both NASA and SpaceX to see the December 7 launch as a success.
Doug Mohney is a contributing editor for TMCnet and a 20-year veteran of the ICT space. To read more of his articles, please visit columnist page.
Edited by Tammy Wolf