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.

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter

 

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  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 230.

    @222.prophetstu
    "Invest the same billions in peace and compassion."
    We already do that, it's known as overseas aid. How exactly do you suggest we invest in "peace and compassion" what results do you expect?

    Whilst I agree that if everyone just got along, no wars we would be much more advanced, if we didn't advance until there was no conflict or poverty, we would still be in the caves.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 229.

    Ground control to major Tom
    Will That be cash or card?

  • Comment number 228.

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

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 227.

    Eli Musk seems like alright guy w/ good agenda

    But that doesn't mean it will stay that way in future

    Sam Walton started Wal-Mart with majority American products
    Today Wal-Mart sells majority Chinese products

    The corporization of space
    is just another sign
    of corporations ruling America

    Now corporations don't just own Earth;
    they will own Space, too

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 226.

    I want my flying saucer parked over my roof....i guess we are still at the firesignal stage with space travel!!! small step ahead IMO....

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 225.

    Well we no longer need the bloated waste of cash that nasa has become, private companies will return America to space with a lust for exploration like the original Astronauts had.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 224.

    206 Mark - That's the reason they are going commercial in the USA; NASA is incredibly inefficient and any sensibly run company can easily keep up with them at a fraction of the price.
    NASA will always have its place as a pioneer, but for more routine things such as restocking the ISS, going private makes sense.
    Can't speak for the ESA however, I imagine them to be more efficient than NASA.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 223.

    2012 is significant for many reasons. Besides SpaceX's success it's the 150th anniversary of the US civil war as well as the 200th anniversary of the war of 1812 when the US invaded Canada after which the British burnt the White House + Congress to the ground. The US west coast, Great Lake states (but not Indiana), Hawaii, and the New England should join Canada as a new Sovereign state.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 222.

    This progress was at the cost of war and misery to all men.

    This "progress" will only benefit but a few of the "superior" sorts.

    Why not look to make true progress for the gain of all

    mankind and the planet .

    Invest the same billions in peace and compassion .

    Then marvel at the results and how man has grown.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 221.

    To Boldly go where no private equity company has gone before!

    I wonder if this expands how long it will be before our tax dodging non dom millionaires start taking orbital flights to avoid tax

  • rate this
    -6

    Comment number 220.

    Don't get me wrong, I think all these triumphs are great steps forward for humanity. It's just that, I wish - at this point on our human history - we were more concentrated on earthly problems. After all, these space projects will not feed anyone, pay anyone's rent, etc. unless of course, they are space employees. Space projects seem inappropriate right NOW.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 219.

    Whoever suggested we utilise "the moon" - instead of the international space station - is seriously underestimating the achievements of those involved in the Apollo landings. The ISS is about 199 to 215 miles from the Earth. The moon is 238,900 miles away.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 218.

    125. Joseph_F
    4 HOURS AGO
    Lots of jealous euro's on here hating 'America'. Focus on your own problems, 'America' will still be here in 10 years, the 'EU' will not ;).
    ------------------

    The EU won't be here in 10 years? Best news I've heard all week.

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 217.

    As an American living in Scandinavian and Switzerland I can say from experience the quality of life here for the average person is much better. Taxes are higher but so is my salary. Democracy works a lot better here. Much of the US is an embarrassment to me. I found the American dream by leaving the US. But if I move back it would probably be to Cali at a place like SpaceX or Silicon Valley.

  • Comment number 216.

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

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 215.

    Excellent news...now that profits can be made from space exploration perhaps we will see better and more focused investment.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 214.

    And_here_we_go_again (201)

    I'm not going to quibble about the meaning of "deep space" as I was providing a counter-argument to Kent, who was simply denigrating Europe's ability at big space misions.

    As for capitals, yes they're a bit stark. I was contrasting a low- and high- speed rendezvous, but there are no elegant ways to do it (italics) and there's no space to phrase it in a better way.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 213.

    I think the UK government should put in the same amount of money into Reaction Engines that the US government pumped into Space-X.

    I have seen some people state over a billion? Not sure about that, all I know is they got $100M.

  • Comment number 212.

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

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 211.

    Will this Spacex firm be the Skylon's first customer? Maybe they could be persuaded to put up some investment cash.

 

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