Nasa chief hails new era in space


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The head of Nasa has hailed a "new era" in exploration after the launch of the first cargo delivery to the space station by a private company.

The Falcon rocket, topped by an unmanned Dragon freight capsule, lifted clear of its Florida pad at 03:44 EDT (07:44 GMT; 08:44 BST).

The launch system has been built by California-based firm SpaceX.

The initial climb to an altitude some 340km above the Earth lasted a little under 10 minutes.

Within moments of being ejected, Dragon opened its solar panels.

It also unpacked its navigation equipment.

Nasa's administrator Charles Bolden said: "Today marks the beginning of a new era in exploration... The significance of this day cannot be overstated; a private company has launched a spacecraft to the International Space Station that will attempt to dock there for the first time.

"And while there is a lot of work ahead to successfully complete this mission, we are certainly off to good start."

It will take a couple of days to reach the station. The plan currently is for the vessel to demonstrate its guidance, control and communications systems on Thursday, at a distance of 2.5km from the International Space Station (ISS).

Dragon Spacecraft annotated

If those practice proximity manoeuvres go well, Dragon will be allowed to drive to within 10m of the station on Friday. Astronauts inside the platform will then grab the ship with a robotic arm and berth it to the 400km-high structure.

They will empty Dragon of its 500kg of food, water and equipment, before releasing it for a return to Earth at the end of the month.

For Elon Musk, the CEO and chief designer at SpaceX, Tuesday's lift-off was a special moment.

"Every bit of adrenalin in my body released at that point," he told reporters. "There's so much hope riding on that rocket, so when it worked, and Dragon worked and the solar arrays deployed, [company employees] saw their handiwork in space and operating as it should - it was tremendous elation. It's like winning the Superbowl."

The mission has major significance because it marks a big change in the way the US wants to conduct its space operations.

Nasa is attempting to offload routine human spaceflight operations in low-Earth orbit to commercial industry in a way similar to how some large organisations contract out their IT or payroll.

The carriage of freight will be the first service to be bought in from external suppliers; the transport of astronauts to and from the station will be the second, later this decade.

The US space agency hopes these changes will save it money that can then be invested in exploration missions far beyond Earth, at destinations such as asteroids and Mars.

SpaceX mission control SpaceX mission control celebrates a successful ascent to orbit for Falcon and Dragon

SpaceX has many new systems it has to demonstrate in the coming days, and has tried to lower expectations ahead of the mission, repeating often that its aim is to learn things it did not previously know.

Nasa has set the California company a series of development milestones. Only when those have been met fully will a $1.6bn ISS re-supply contract kick in.

The agency is also looking to engage a second cargo partner. Orbital Sciences Corporation of Virginia is slightly behind SpaceX in its development schedule, although it started work on its Antares rocket and Cygnus capsule system later. Orbital expects to fly a first mission to the vicinity of the ISS later this year or early in 2013.

"We're really at the dawn of a new era in space exploration, and one where there's a much bigger role for commercial space companies," Mr Musk said.

"I think perhaps there's some parallels to the internet in the mid-90s where the internet was created as a government endeavour but then the introduction of commercial companies really accelerated the growth of the internet."

SpaceX launch behind a shuttle model Out with the old: Since the retirement of the shuttles last year, the US has relied on other ISS partners for cargo and crew transport

Tuesday's Falcon launch was also notable for the small and rather unusual payload that piggy-backed the ride to orbit.

This was a container holding the cremated remains of more than 300 space enthusiasts, among them the late Star Trek actor James "Scotty" Doohan.

The ashes had been placed in the Falcon's discarded second stage.

They will continue to circle the planet for about a year before falling back to Earth and vaporizing. and follow me on Twitter


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  • rate this

    Comment number 190.

    I do not value many people's opinions and people who disagree with me are the ones who are wrong!
    Ego as big as a planet!

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    172. I_AM_THE_CHOSEN_ONE ...your weren't serious were you?....i found 'i wish everyone was dead' a bit dramatic really

  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    Kent (159) "Europeans ... have had ZERO deep space missions."

    Sigh. Try ESA's "Venus Express" mission. Try the Huygens probe which went to Saturn (joint NASA/ESA mission). It's easy to find others. Doesn't sound like ZERO to me.

    Kent (140) "Americanism is a mental disorder."

    What can I say?

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.

    The UK has spent 18 billion quid on a war in Afghanistan and all we've got is hundreds of dead troops and an Afghanistan in ruins with the world's highest infant mortality rate and it is not over by a long way. For 1/20th of that the UK could be launching its own science packages and preparing the way for long term commercial development of space. It is like politicians want the UK to fail.

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    To all of you complaining of the cost ...$1.6 billion is about what Bono is reported to have made from the Facebook float .... Mr Zuckerberg made over $100bn. That's the perspective.

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.

    Cranial Vacancy (114)
    "SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk ... South African"

    Kent (155)
    "Typical European jealousy. You can't give credit where its due."

    Can you read? I said South Africa and you replied by ranting about Europeans.

    South Africa is not in Europe. What have you been smoking?

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.


    No Alien is going to wipe us out if they haven't mastered space flight!

  • Comment number 183.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 182.

    JvR (158)
    "....and berth it to the 400km-high structure." Never realised it was this big.

    Er... that's slightly awkward and unclear use of language by Jonathan Amos. What he MEANT was that the space station's orbit is 400 km above the earth.

  • Comment number 181.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 180.


  • rate this

    Comment number 179.

    Jolly good, well done SpaceX and the good ole U S of A. Now what happens? Wealthy individuals creating their own outer space getaways where they can sit miles above the environmental and economic disasters they have presided over thus far? Or maybe a genuine step forward for the whole planet and the human race. Only time will tell.

  • rate this

    Comment number 178.

    'The Realist' is quite right, there are commercial rocket launches from Europe and have been for a while.

    However, to give the SpaceX team their due, this appears to be the first time a rocket system has been entirely developed from scratch on the back of a commercial enterprise.

    I believe the existing companies are using rocket systems bought from government funded space agencies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 177.

    @Kent, we have not seen a single crew member launched by Space-X. So what exactly is the special occassion here?

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    Kent (149)

    "" Jonathan Amos ... loves trumping up "UK" or "European" space accomplishments but never gives credit to "US" or "America". ""

    FYI: "Trumping up" means faking or falsifying.
    You mean "Trumpeting" which means proudly announcing.

    TO THE POINT: Jonathan Amos knows we're not completely stupid, so that when we see "California" we also think of America. Doh! Doh! Doh!

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    162. The Realist

    Sorry but you're wrong. Boeing and Lockheed Martin, two American companies, have been building rockets and launching private payloads for decades.

    What makes SpaceX special is that it is the first private company to launch its own crew-capable spacecraft (Dragon) to the ISS. No European company has done this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    @164. Kent
    "The US has put humans in orbit. Europe has not, not once."
    That's not fair either, Europe has plenty of Astronauts and many sent up in Russian vehicles (Europe/Asia)

    The huygens lander that went to Titan was European, plus we have Envisat which is the largest and most advanced environmental satellite

    NASA gets more funding so do the bigger projects, but ESA does amazing stuff too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    The achievements made by NASA and other government space agencies around the world have come to fruition. While I think it's great that private companies are joining the space race we shouldn't forget that it took many years of hard work by publicly-funded organizations to get to this point. Many scientific advances have come from space research and this effort will continue to benefit humanity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    #161 Chris

    Don't know why you find it so funny.

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    Great News.

    Now Man-Rate it and America is back where Russia was 40 years ago in the capability of getting man and cargo to LEO.

    PS. China welcomes you to her Moon.


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