TOPICS > Science

SpaceX Blasts Into ‘Uncharted Territory,’ Hoping to Make Space Cheaper

May 22, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
After several delays -- including a last-second abort on Saturday when computers spotted a bad engine valve, Space Explorations Technologies Corporation on Tuesday became the first private company to send a vessel to the International Space Station. Jeffrey Brown and Miles O'Brien discuss the significance of the SpaceX launch.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: An historic moment for the American space program today ass the first U.S. commercial spaceflight successfully took off.

Jeffrey Brown has our story.

MAN: And launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket as NASA turns to the private sector to resupply the International Space Station.

JEFFREY BROWN: With that, the rocket fired into the predawn sky over Cape Canaveral, Florida, opening a new era. SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies, became the first private company to send a vessel to the International Space Station.

Billionaire founder Elon Musk exulted as he watched from the company’s mission control in Southern California.

ELON MUSK, CEO, SpaceX: Every bit of adrenaline in my body released at that point. The — it’s obviously an extremely intense moment.

MAN: Two, one, zero and liftoff. We’ve had a cutoff.

JEFFREY BROWN: He’d faced several delays, including a last-second abort on Saturday when computers spotted a bad engine valve.

ELON MUSK: We have some questions generated by the prior launch abort. But it actually — it worked perfectly, so I was really glad to see that. And then the second stage worked really well. And anything could have gone wrong, and everything went right, fortunately, so I feel very lucky.

JEFFREY BROWN: The rocket lifted its cargo, the Dragon capsule loaded with supplies, into orbit. On Friday, it will attempt rendezvous with the space station, as depicted in this NASA animation, and if all goes well, the station robot arm will grab Dragon and reel it in.

Until now, all such U.S. missions were the purview of NASA’s space shuttles. But they have now been retired to museums, and NASA administrator Charles Bolden says the new goal is to let private firms manage missions in low-Earth orbit.

CHARLES BOLDEN, NASA administrator: We’re handing off to the private sector our transportation to the International Space Station, so that NASA can focus on what we do best, exploring even deeper into our solar system, with missions to an asteroid and Mars on the horizon.

JEFFREY BROWN: To that end, NASA invested millions of dollars of seed money in SpaceX. The company now has a $1.6 billion contract for 12 cargo flights to the space station.

And joining me now is NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien.

Miles, welcome.

MILES O’BRIEN: Pleasure.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have looked deeply into this, an important moment. How important? How do you define it?

MILES O’BRIEN: It’s big deal. It’s quite tectonic, actually.

And, you know, what’s interesting about it is that we keep talking about the private sector launching a rocket into space. NASA has never built a rocket on its own. It’s always had the private sector involved, whether it’s Lockheed Martin or Boeing or Grumman, whatever the case may be. This is all about how you cut the deal.

This is the contract that we’re talking about. For years and years, it was run like the Pentagon, cost-plus. There’s no incentive for efficiencies when you do those kinds of contracts. This is a fixed-price deal. Send it off to the private sector. Maybe they can do it cheaper.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah. Now, it is still interesting though to see the close coordination with NASA, right? And there are these two cultures at work. Are they working together or is it really — have they gone off in separate directions?

MILES O’BRIEN: They better work together because Dragon is getting closer and closer to the International Space Station.

As it gets closer, it’s going through a series of milestone tests to see if its abort system works, make sure it can go into what is called free drift, so it can be grabbed by the space station robot arm, make sure its laser system, which is its range finder, is all working well.

This is what this mission is all about, kind of wringing out all that technology. If all goes well, it will get grasped and be attached to the space station and some underwear will come on board.

JEFFREY BROWN: All of these things are to come over the next few days, right?

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes. Friday morning is the big morning to pay attention to.

At this point, really, Falcon is — each step of the way, it’s demonstrating aspects of the Dragon capsule it hasn’t done before. The Falcon rocket has already been proven on a couple of launches, so this is all uncharted territory now.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, now, but to go back to the business model which is the new thing here, the idea is that the private company can do it cheaper, but keep up the same safety? Is that the hope?

MILES O’BRIEN: This is the hope. And this is where you get — you know the critics of Elon Musk and this SpaceX endeavor and the others who are in this entity, in this enterprise, would tell you it can’t be done. You cannot do short circuit or take shortcuts on safety.

But the fact is, low-Earth orbit is something that is pretty well understood at this point and now is the time to see if it can be done. How you define what is the right level of safety is the tricky part, especially when you start putting U.S. astronauts in these capsules.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah, well, that’s the hope, right, a manned flight.

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: I went back to look at the piece you did for us a few weeks ago on this, and you had Elon Musk in there in saying — actually gushing, I should say, on talking about sending ultimately tens of thousands, eventually millions of people to Mars, and then going out there and exploring the stars.

MILES O’BRIEN: You don’t think he’s thinking big?

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. This is not a small-minded fellow. Right?

MILES O’BRIEN: He is thinking big. That might be a little bit of hyperbole there, but he does envision a world in which space travel is more routine.

There’s a lot of people who care a lot about space who say this is the first step. Right now, it costs $10,000 a pound, if you were still flying the shuttle, to put anything in space, $10,000 a pound. Elon Musk says he can get it below $1,000 a pound. If that can happen, that changes the whole equation so fundamentally, it opens all kinds of new ideas for what you can do in space.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what is the timing for something like that or at least to start down that road?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, I mean he’s down the road right now. He’s doing this for pennies on the dollar already compared to a typical shuttle mission.

The shuttle was a very complicated, expensive craft. It did a lot of things. It had a tremendous amount of capability. It was kind of like the Concorde. It’s a really cool craft, but in the end it wasn’t that practical. So what he’s building is a simpler, leaner design, and so far it’s cheaper.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for getting people up there?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, you know, the safety decisions will have to be made, but at this point what he has on paper is safer than the shuttle. The shuttle didn’t have a crew escape system.

The shuttle — the return vehicle was downstream of all kinds of debris. We saw what happened in the case of Columbia. This is ultimately a fundamentally safer design. Now, part of it is in the execution of the design. We have got to watch that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we should say he’s not alone, right?

MILES O’BRIEN: No. No.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is the beginning of a — other companies are already involved in this.

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, there’s a half-dozen other players in this right now, some of them small like SpaceX.

But what’s interesting to watch right now is you have the likes of Boeing, big name, ATK, built the solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle program. They are trying to play in this environment. They are used to working under the old-fashioned cost-plus contracts. Can these elephants dance in the fixed-price world is the big question.

They want to play, though. So it will be interesting to see if they can do it that much cheaper.

JEFFREY BROWN: And just briefly, NASA in the meantime watches, right? They work with these guys and they try to figure out their own future.

MILES O’BRIEN: And we hope they get enough funding to fund this heavy-lift rocket they would like to build and go to Mars or an asteroid. That’s the key right now. Will they get the funding to make that happen?

Charlie Bolden said it’s over the horizon. I’m afraid it might be way over the horizon if NASA doesn’t get the funding for it

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Miles O’Brien, thanks, as always.