Another new era in space exploration begins

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Published on: October 13, 2012

With the launch last Sunday of a Falcon 9 rocket and subsequent berthing of a Dragon capsule to the International Space Station on Wednesday, it really is true we have entered a new era in space exploration — just like all the press releases and hype from NASA and SpaceX have claimed.

Although what happened this past week had first happened in May, that earlier mission was considered a test flight to demonstrate that SpaceX was ready for the job of delivering of cargo to the space station. This week’s flight was in fact the real deal, the first of 12 such commercial missions SpaceX is to fly for NASA under a $1.6 billion contract.

In case you were wondering, it is in the nature of that contract — the way NASA is doing business with SpaceX — that really does make this worthy of using the phrase “opening a new era in spaceflight.”

Why is that? Well, historically, NASA as a government agency has used — and still uses in other areas — what’s called a cost-plus contract to get the job done, whatever that job may be. With cost-plus, NASA tells a company what it needs, in very specific language, and them essentially micromanages every detail of the effort along the way. This is done in the name of mission success and safety.

The selected company then charges NASA for the work and if the actual costs don’t cover the estimates, the government pays the difference. And on top of all that, NASA awards the contractor a bonus fee that is based on how well the company is doing on the contract overall.

It was under this way of doing business that Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and the Space Shuttle programs were conducted to such historic acclaim.

What’s new here with SpaceX is that NASA is using a fixed price contract to get the job done. That’s true also of NASA’s contract with Orbital Sciences, which is to use their new Antares rocket to also deliver cargo to the orbiting outpost.

With a fixed price contract, this is where NASA tells industry in great detail what it needs and then buys the service or product outright, without instructing the company how to do the job at every step. It reminds of me what you or I might do in going to a new car dealer and telling the salesperson what kind of car you want and with what options, and then after agreeing on a specific price the car is built and delivered.

You don’t have to pay extra if the car maker’s costs go up for whatever reason, nor do you have any say in exactly how the car maker does its job. Your only concern is that the final product is delivered and works to your satisfaction. Of course, NASA and SpaceX are working together more closely than you would with a car maker, but the basic idea behind the contractual relationship is the same.

Put another way, under a cost plus contract NASA has oversight of all the operations, but with a fixed price contract the space agency “only” has insight into what’s going on. It’s supposed to be a more efficient, less expensive way of doing business and with the SpaceX flights to the space station it’s a major break from the way things always have been done in the past, especially where human spaceflight is concerned.

We’re getting our feet wet now with cargo flights, but it’s under this same contract scenario that NASA is operating its commercial crew program to launch astronauts on privately built and operated launch vehicles.

Will it work in the long run? Is this the best way for the government to do business when it comes to space exploration? Can private industry safely deliver the goods without NASA looking over their shoulder at every step? Those are the questions people are asking as this new era begins.

And we’re already getting our first test of this new era with the first official launch under the commercial cargo contract.

Although the Dragon spacecraft is safely berthed to the space station right now, and the three astronauts onboard have already unpacked their new supplies and enjoyed some real vanilla and chocolate swirl ice cream that was waiting for them inside a freezer, the launch itself was not as picture perfect as it may have appeared.

One minute and 19 seconds after launch one of the rocket’s nine first stage Merlin engines shut down after losing pressure for reasons unknown as of yet. When this happened, several panels on the rocket ejected as designed and were seen falling from the vehicle, making it seem like the engine exploded to everyone watching the tracking camera view.

SpaceX said later the engine did not explode, a fact they knew because they continued to receive telemetry from the engine as the rocket continued to climb toward orbit.

With eight other good engines still firing, the Falcon 9 automatically recalculated its path to space and by firing both its first and second stage longer than originally planned, the Dragon spacecraft was delivered into its proper orbit bound for the space station.

The only casualty of the incident was a small secondary commercial satellite payload on the rocket’s second stage that was not delivered into its required orbit and subsequently burned up during its premature reentry. The owners of the prototype satellite say they were able to get some useful data during the brief time it spent in orbit, but otherwise the mission is being declared a total loss.

So while the Falcon 9 successfully worked exactly as it was designed to work, engine failure and all, neither SpaceX nor NASA is completely happy about the whole thing and have already formed a joint investigation board to look into the engine problem to understand what happened and make any corrections for future missions – as they should.

I am hopeful the outcome of this investigation, and the way in which corrective actions are determined and implemented, will demonstrate to the space community that this new way of doing business is workable as advertised and is a path we should continue to follow as planned.

So while it wasn’t picture perfect, the first official commercial cargo delivery mission to the International Space Station has been a success so far. Of course, the Dragon capsule must still return to Earth later this month and successfully splash down in the Pacific Ocean.

It’s not over yet, but there’s no denying we truly have entered a new era of space exploration. I can’t wait for what’s next.

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