SpaceX Hits New Milestone With Falcon Test

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The Continuing Commercial Space Flight Saga

You have to hand to the folks at SpaceX; they don’t let failure get them down.  Last time I reported on the commercial space flight pioneers they were reeling from a disaster involving their Crew Dragon Capsule.  Then this week, they were right back on the proverbial horse with a successful new SpaceX Falcon Test.  Fittingly, the launch test took place on May the 4th (and the Star Wars fans and Jedi faithful say… “May the 4th be with you!”).   More importantly, however, it was a success.  

The Force Was Strong With the SpaceX Falcon Test This Weekend:

A lot was made on May 4th about the Star Wars connection, and it’s easy to see why.  First, the Falcon rocket system is admittedly named after the famed “Millenium Falcon.”  Second, the launch mission was designed to deliver a Dragon cargo resupply ship to the ISS and successfully retrieve the reusable Falcon rockets.  On both fronts, the mission was a success.

Falcons… Dragons… Is Elon Musk for Real?

Well… Yes.  He’s totally for real.  He’s a guy who’s definitely got his quirks and his faults, but he’s also pushing us very hard toward the reality of commercial space flight.  Let’s also not forget about the potential benefits of a successful public/private partnership for future space exploration.  Now, being from Washington state, I have to admit I have a preferential bias for Boeing, but Boeing is running a little behind in terms of capsule development.  Regardless of who gets there first, however, let’s take a look at some of the parts of these machines and what they’re for.

Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy Rockets

Falcon 9 rocket with Dragon spacecraft on the launchpad.

Falcon 9 rocket with Dragon spacecraft on the launchpad.

First of all, if you know nothing at all about rocket science, then let’s get this part out of the way.  The rockets are the engines of any spacecraft available today.  They are designed to lift a very specific payload into space.  Most of the time, that payload is cargo.  Sometimes it’s crew.  Sometimes it’s both.  In the past, government-run space programs such as NASA designed these rockets to be one-use Johnnys.  That is – they were designed to be used once, then jettisoned as junk.  

SpaceX decided to build re-usable ones.  That’s what the Falcon series is all about.  They are designed to deliver their payload into orbit, detach, and then return safely to Earth to be used again.  Musk says the ultimate goal is to be able to use a Falcon 9 within 24 hours of its most recent use.  In other words, one Falcon 9 rocket could be launched every day.  So far, they’ve been enormously successful on that front.  All of the re-entry and safe landing tests have gone well, including this most SpaceX Falcon test.

The Falcon 9 is a medium-capacity rocket system, designed to carry satellites and other relatively light cargo into space.  The Falcon Heavy is the high-capacity system designed to bring much heavier payloads into orbit.  The heavier system will be useful on base-building and colonization missions in the future, and it’s also designed to be reusable.  

Dragon Capsules

Dragon is the general name for the actual spacecraft program at SpaceX.  The capsules are designed to carry both crew and cargo payloads.  On March 2nd, SpaceX celebrated a major milestone in which the Dragon became the first American spacecraft to dock with the ISS automatically.  The test was unmanned.  A few days later, however, a test of critical rocket systems on the crew capsule failed catastrophically during the last phase.  This was also an unmanned test, but the failure has cast doubts over when the first manned test of the Crew Dragon capsule will take place.

Boeing’s Capsule – the Starliner, is set for its first unmanned rendezvous test with the International Space Station in August.  The first manned test is scheduled for November.

Unfortunately for both companies, however, each capsule has suffered failures during critical parachute tests in recent months.

The Takeaway:

It’s apparent that the Crew Dragon still needs a lot of work.  In order to safely test the capsule with humans inside, there are serious safety concerns to address.  Still, the latest SpaceX Falcon Test shows that the program remains incredibly successful.  Despite the setbacks on the crew side, the ability to re-use rockets to resupply both the ISS and future manned missions has huge implications.  Both in regards to budgetary concerns, and national security, the continued success of SpaceX’s Falcon program is good news.  

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