SpaceX readies historic mission
Published: 18th May 2012 10:37:28
California's SpaceX company will look to establish a piece of history on Saturday when it launches its Falcon 9 rocket from Florida.
The vehicle will lift the Dragon cargo capsule into orbit on a mission to resupply the space station.
It will be the first time a commercial company has provided such a service.
Although billed as a demonstration, the mission has major significance because it marks a big change in the way the US wants to conduct its space operations.
Both SpaceX and another private firm, Orbital Sciences Corp, have been given billion-dollar contracts to keep the space station stocked with food and equipment. Orbital hopes to make its first visit to the manned outpost with its Antares/Cygnus system in the coming year.
Lift-off for the Falcon is timed for 04:55 EDT (08:55 GMT; 09:55 BST). It is going up from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Single-sourcing space transportation capability will just result in a new monopoly and will evolve the same cost structure as the old”
The ascent phase should last a little under 10 minutes, with the Dragon capsule being ejected just over 300km (185 miles) above the Earth.
The conical spaceship will then deploy its solar panels and check out its guidance and navigation systems before firing its thrusters to chase down the station.
A practice rendezvous is planned for Monday when Dragon will move to within 2.5km (1.5 miles) of the station.
If Nasa and SpaceX are satisfied that the vehicle is performing well, it will be commanded to fly up and over the outpost in preparation for close-in manoeuvres on Tuesday.
Unlike the Russian and European robotic freighters that drive all the way into docking ports on the International Space Station (ISS), Dragon will move itself to a position just 10m (32ft) under the platform where it will be grabbed by a robotic arm operated by astronauts inside the orbiting laboratory.
The arm will berth Dragon to the "Harmony" connecting module on the ISS. The crew are then expected to start unloading the ship's supplies of food and other consumables on Wednesday.
"There's no question that some people are putting too much weight on this flight because it is explicitly a test flight; and, indeed, we may not succeed in getting all the way to the space station," cautions Elon Musk, the CEO and chief designer at SpaceX.
"There are, hopefully, going to be two more flights to the space station later this year with almost identical configuration, so if this one doesn't succeed I'm confident one of the other two will. There should be no doubt about our resolve."
This mission is part of Nasa's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (Cots) programme which was established to help shift some of the agency's traditional roles and activities into the private sector.
Nasa is provided seed funding of approximately $800m to SpaceX and Orbital to enable them to develop their rocket and capsule systems. Once they have reached the milestones laid out under Cots, the full ISS re-supply contracts will kick in.
For SpaceX, this is valued at $1.6bn (£1bn) and calls for a minimum of 12 Dragon missions to the ISS.
But the significance of the upcoming mission goes far beyond the delivery of astronaut dinners and replacement parts for the station.
Nasa is attempting to offload routine human spaceflight operations in low-Earth orbit to commercial industry in a way similar to how large organisations might contract out their IT or payroll.
The agency will now set performance targets; it will be up to the individual companies to work out how best to meet those targets.
At the centre of this philosophy is the use of "fixed-price" contracts, rather than the "cost-plus" model that has featured so prominently in space programmes of the past.
The intention is to free Nasa to concentrate more of its effort and funds on planning exploration missions far beyond Earth, to asteroids and Mars.
This means privateers picking up not just the unmanned cargo runs to the ISS, but the delivery and return of crew as well.
To that end, SpaceX's capsule has been designed from the outset to carry people; and under another Nasa programme, the company is working to develop the onboard life-support and safety systems that would make manned Dragon flights feasible.
Lori Garver, Nasa's deputy administrator, observes: "We are at a brink of a milestone moment in our space history with the upcoming SpaceX launch - all part of this longer term strategy that will create high-quality jobs right here in America, reducing the cost of space transportation so that Nasa can spend our valuable tax dollars doing those very difficult things that the government is best at doing."
The "new era" is not without its detractors, however.
Elements in the US Congress would prefer to see the agency retain the intense oversight of the old approach.
These politicians say they have concerns about the safety of the new commercial systems, and question the value of seed-funding several companies in early-stage development work when only one or two completed systems are ever likely to win service contracts.
Last week, the House of Representatives passed a bill calling on Nasa to choose one company now, and put all its investment behind that particular outfit.
But making such a choice would be deeply flawed, believes Jeff Greason, the president of XCOR Aerospace and a leading proponent of commercial space.
"It is clearly possible 50 years after John Glenn for US industry to take people to orbit," he says.
"And given the fiscal realities, there is in my view simply no credible alternative to commercial crew transportation services, because trying to maintain a government-only ISS crew taxi will just break the budget.
"But competition is the key element in that strategy. Single-sourcing space transportation capability will just result in a new monopoly and will evolve the same cost structure as the old.
"Competition is the only tool we have to keep that from happening."
Since the shuttles were retired last year, America has no means currently of launching its own astronauts into space - seats must be bought for them on Russian Soyuz rockets.
SpaceX says Dragon could be ready to carry people within three years. Competing companies are promising similar timelines.
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Harvard CitationBBC News, 2012. SpaceX readies historic mission [Online] (Updated 18th May 2012)
Available at: http://www.ukwirednews.com/news/1429440/SpaceX-readies-historic-mission [Accessed 25th Apr 2014]
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With the doors to its brand new £1million training centre officially open, one of the UK's leading apprentice training providers, Bristol based S&B Automotive Academy, is showcasing its world-class facilities by launching a series of foreign student exchanges for the first time in its 41-year history. To get a flavour of what life is like as an apprentice in the UK, the Academy hosted 16 apprentice engineers and bus drivers from the G9 Automotive College in Hamburg, Germany, as part of a Europe-wide vocational training initiative called the ‘Leonardo Programme’ with support from the European Social Fund. In a reciprocal arrangement, S&B will be sending nine apprentices to Germany during February 2012 so that they can get an appreciation of life in the automotive industry on the Continent. A further three German exchange groups are being planned for next year. Designed to assist the development of vocational skills and training across Europe, including work placements for trainees, the Leonardo Programme has a budget of €1.75bn, which is helping to encourage UK organisations to work with their counterparts abroad. In what is expected to be another challenging year for employers in the UK automotive sector, S&B’s Chief Executive, Jon Winter, claims that the exchange initiative will bring many benefits to the Academy and its apprentices: “In a world of global automotive brands, it’s important for our learners to understand the international context of the industry they have chosen to make their career. This new exchange programme will enable apprentices and Academy staff alike to achieve a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities within the automotive arena in Europe. With the Academy’s influence also extending to the USA and Asia, there’s every possibility that this initiative could move further afield in the future.” Continued Winter: “The need for skilled technicians across the world is on the increase and we actively encourage our apprentices to look at broader horizons during their training. Many of them have already learned the phrase ‘Vorsprung durch Gelehrtheit’, quite simply, ‘Advancement through learning.” In the 2010/11 academic year, S&B doubled the number of successful Apprenticeships over the previous year with some 350 apprentices graduating from the Academy. At the same time, achievement levels reached an all-time high with an overall success rate of 85%. For those learners on the Advanced Apprenticeship three-year programme, success rates were even higher, at over 98%. PHOTO CAPTION: As part of their exchange visit, S&B Automotive Academy arranged for the German apprentices to visit Hampshire bus operator, Bluestar, at its Barton Park depot. The students are pictured with S&B’s Andy West (3rd right) and Steve Prewett, Bluestar’s Area Engineering Manager (2nd right). Ends http://www.sandbaa.com