Ten years ago on 22 May 2012, Elon Musk’s SpaceX made history. The company became the fourth entity after the United States, Russia and China to launch a spacecraft into orbit and return it to Earth on 31 May of the same year. This achievement radically changed the course of the next decade of space exploration.
That mission, Dragon C2/3, was also the first commercial spacecraft to dock with another spacecraft in orbit on May 24, 2012, in the case of SpaceX – the International Space Station. It was also the first commercial spacecraft to return cargo. Earth.
At the time, Musk reportedly said in a press conference: “This mission heralds a new era of space exploration, with an important commercial space element.”
he was right. Dennis Stone, a NASA commercial space executive who was directly involved, says the mission “ushered in a new era of commercial space services.”
These achievements cemented SpaceX’s place as NASA’s go-to private partner for launching crew and cargo to the International Space Station. But it also ignited a debate about public and private partnerships for space science that is still raging today.
Why NASA turned to SpaceX
Since 1981, NASA’s Space Shuttle program has been responsible for carrying humans and cargo to and from space—but in 2011, the Space Shuttle was about to be retired. To bring people and goods into space, NASA needs a new, cost-effective way to keep the ISS and other near-Earth space research and exploration going without paying for a shuttle.
“In preparation for the end of the Space Shuttle, NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services began in 2006 by investing in SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation — now Northrop Grumman — in the ability to carry cargo from low Earth orbit,” Stone explains.
“Each company developed a launch vehicle and a cargo spacecraft that could rendezvous and berth with the International Space Station.”
Later, NASA awarded one of the first commercial resupply services contracts to SpaceX. These cover individual flights funded by NASA for the delivery of cargo to the ISS using commercially operated spacecraft.
SpaceX was awarded a $1.6 billion dollar award for twelve of the company’s partially reusable cargo spacecraft: Dragon. The Dragons are launched into orbit using SpaceX’s flagship rocket, the Falcon 9.
dragon takes flight
The first time Dragon took off in the sky – in December 2010 – also marked the first COTS and CRS launches. During this first mission, the second launch of the Falcon 9, Dragon entered orbit – a first for a commercial spacecraft. But re-entry wasn’t that easy: The Dragon craft disintegrated on its way back to Earth before its parachute was enabled.
“Getting this far this fast has been a remarkable achievement,” said Phil McAllister, NASA’s executive director of commercial space flight development at the time.
“No matter how this spacecraft goes, we are committed to this program.”
SpaceX’s next missions were given a joint designation: Dragon C 2/3. The name of the test flight itself is a testament to SpaceX’s success and NASA’s partnership to this point—originally conceived as two separate test flights, the agency decided to roll them into one mission.
Before they rolled into one, SpaceX’s Dragon C2 should have first practiced movements and communications for a final rendezvous with the ISS. The space capsule will then return from orbit to Earth – hopefully, in one piece. The second mission, Dragon C3, was to test whether Dragon could dock to the ISS as planned.
Between July and December of 2011, NASA cut short for the chase and approved Dragon C 2/3.
“The mission demonstrated a new paradigm for investing in commercial capabilities that can be shared by government and private sector clients,” says Stone.
Then, after several delays, Dragon C2/3 finally launched on May 22, 2012. It berthed on the ISS on May 24, 2012 – making it the first commercial ship to dock with another ship in space.
“Not only has it saved NASA money but encouraged the growth of a strong commercial space industry in America, it was really a great moment for space,” Stone says. (Stone notes that “a few days ago, Boeing had successfully demonstrated that it could reach the ISS with its crewed spacecraft, and would thus join SpaceX in providing commercial crew services from the ISS.) .”)
NASA’s Business Future
The mission was a resounding success. The 2017 cost assessment by NASA analyst Edgar Zapata states clearly: “COTS development and subsequent operational commercial supply services (CRS) are significant advances in affordability by any measure.”
To understand why it was so much more economical for SpaceX to contract flights, it’s worth considering a separate analysis conducted in 2018 by NASA engineer Harry Jones. This suggests that the cost of NASA’s Space Shuttle was exorbitant – launching one kilogram of material into space. Jones estimated the cost to be $54,500. SpaceX reduced that number to $2,720 per kilogram using the Falcon 9.
Both analyzes emphasize that as NASA takes on more missions into deep space, cost reduction due to the growing need for space infrastructure will prove invaluable. But in return, the commercial sector equally appears to need government support — or, at least, Elon Musk did so after his 2012 launch.
“I would like to start by saying what a great honor it is to work with NASA,” Musk said during a press conference after the flights reportedly featured on the National Space Society’s website.
“And to accept the fact that we could not have started SpaceX, nor would we have gotten to this point without the help of NASA.”
SpaceX competes for dominance
But NASA has met with some resistance to the involvement of commercial entities such as SpaceX in achieving its science goals. Russia used to be the primary source of transportation for astronauts to the ISS—and they weren’t happy with the business they lost. NASA 2020. used Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft at a cost of $86 billion per seat, according to Forbes report good.
According to Russia, the main concern was that the SpaceX Dragon capsule did not meet Roscosmos’ (Russian space agency) safety standards. Denver Post story from time to time.
At the time, Keith Koing (a former NASA employee and editor of the American space blog NASA Watch) suspected that Russia wanted to claim a monopoly on space transportation with its Soyuz spacecraft.
Despite Russia’s hesitation for SpaceX and NASA to work together, the success of Dragon C2/3 laid the groundwork for the rapid expansion of commercial space technology.
Initially conceived as an unmanned capsule, Dragon capsules are now crewed and increasingly cost-effective, competing with Russia’s Soyuz as the primary means of transporting astronauts to the ISS. According to a report, the cost of a complete Dragon spaceship launch is $55 million. So far, 23 Dragons have been launched.
Now ten years after the deadly launch of Dragon C2/3, the partnership between NASA and commercial companies is intensifying. In the same press conference after the launch of Dragon C2/3, Musk suggested that the mission was the beginning of an era of accelerating technological progress.
“It’s like the advent of the Internet in the mid-1990s when commercial companies entered what was basically a government effort,” he reportedly said.
“That move dramatically accelerated the pace of progress and brought the Internet to the mass market. I think we’re at a similar inflection point for space. I hope and believe this mission It will be historic in marking that turning point towards rapid advances in space transportation technology.