The successful test flight of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft marks the dawn of a new era in orbital space flight and a significant milestone for a Southern California startup that admits it is “standing on the shoulders of giants.”
“Mind-blowingly awesome” is how SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk described the day’s events shortly after the company’s Dragon capsule completed nearly two orbits of the Earth on Tuesday. The successful launch places the company on pace to fulfill a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to deliver 44, 000 pounds of cargo during 12 flights to the International Space Station.
The Dragon flew for about three hours and 20 minutes at an altitude of 182 miles (300 kilometers). It is the first privately developed and launched spacecraft to be put into low Earth orbit and return to Earth for a successful recovery.
Many veterans of space flight praised the launch and said it shows commercial orbital flight is a viable option, especially as NASA brings the space shuttle program to a close. Former shuttle astronaut Byron Lichtenberg said the SpaceX model could open the door for new astronauts who won’t be limited by NASA’s agenda.
“I expect that there will be a lot more astronauts in the future because of today’s success with Dragon, ” Lichtenberg said after the flight. “Lower-cost launches means more flights, which means more astronauts. We’ve only had 500 astronauts in the history of the Space Age, but I hope to see thousands more in the decades to come thanks to new spacecraft like Dragon.”
“This successful demonstration flight is an important milestone in meeting the objectives outlined by President Obama and Congress, and shows how government and industry can leverage expertise and resources to foster a new and vibrant space economy, ” Bolden said.
Before Tuesday’s launch, Musk had given the mission a 60 to 70 percent chance of success. Following the successful launch, orbits and recovery of the capsule, the normally loquacious entrepreneur was at a loss for words.
“I wish I could be more articulate at moments like this, but, um, I think it’s just sort of a natural reaction which kind of blows my mind, ” he said. “It’s hard to be articulate with a blown mind.”
Following a delayed launch at 10:43 a.m. EST, Dragon completed nearly two orbits of the Earth. During the trip, the spacecraft performed maneuvers meant to test its ability to rendezvous with the space station. Engineers tested the capsule’s thrusters, power system and navigation equipment before carrying out a de-orbit burn and landing on target in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico.
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