Wednesday, 02 May 2012 12:39
May 2, 2012
The upcoming launch of a rocket designed and developed by a private company signals a switch in the study of space.
After years of careful engineering research, SpaceX is set to attempt to launch one of its rockets to the International Space Station. Industry watchers and scientists have paid careful attention to the company's pursuit of space travel, especially since NASA retired its decades-long Space Shuttle program last year, marking the end of an era in which the government was the sole patron of the sector.
The Washington Post reports that President George W. Bush first pushed for private companies to innovate the exceedingly expensive and time-consuming act of space travel and exploration. President Obama has also supported efforts from a number of companies, including SpaceX, to engineer their own rockets. SpaceX is hoping its first highly public foray will illustrate that private firms can help reduce costs and invigorate the industry.
"It's proving to be harder and more complicated and more expensive than [SpaceX founder] Elon Musk anticipated," noted Dale Ketcham, who works at Central Florida University's Spaceport Research and Policy Institute. "But it's still more efficient than NASA."
NASA's Space Shuttle program was long plagued by cost overruns and major setbacks, including failed launches that resulted in the deaths of esteemed astronauts. With private firms entering the fray, NASA has more time to focus on the study of asteroids, the Moon and Mars, a planet the space agency hopes to send astronauts to in the future.
SpaceX is eyeing a launch of its rocket for Monday, but that date is tentative, according to the Post. Like all missions to space, engineers and scientists are working to ensure that the company's computer models are sound, and that there are no mistakes lurking in its code. Even the slightest of errors could spur major problems for the planned rocket launch, and SpaceX is hoping to avoid an embarrassment, especially with the amount of fanfare surrounding the mission.
Bill Stone, a robotics engineer and chief executive of Stone Aerospace, a company that aims to send manned spacecraft to the Moon, said that the upcoming launch of the SpaceX rocket could be a watershed moment. In an interview with Wired Magazine, he cited a few factors that would cement the company's legacy.
"It will be a game changer provided two things happen," he said. "One, that they succeed and don't have any accidents – they don't have anything like what happened with the Progress approach to Mir in 1997, where it crashed into one of the solar panels and knocked out one of the modules. And two, they do it at radically lower prices than what the other ELV costs would be. The big guys can get technical success, but it will cost you a lot of dough. The real question for Elon, is can he do it cheaply?
With so much at stake, SpaceX is continuing to scrutinize its planned rocket launch, and company executives affirmed they would scrap plans if necessary. Stone asserted that other private firms, including Orbital Sciences, have tried and subsequently failed to cut the costs of space travel. Though SpaceX has made significant progress in achieving such an outcome, the success of its next rocket launch is exceedingly important to the company's future, he contended.
SpaceX plans to bring approximately 1,100 pounds of food, water and other supplies to the ISS. SpaceX spokesperson Kristin Brost emphasized the company's commitment to ensuring the launch goes as smoothly as possible.
"We're going to check and double-check and triple-check before launch day," she said.
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