Atlantis Launch Notes: July 7, 9:00 A.M.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER—As of now, NASA's final space shuttle launch is still on for Friday at 11:26 A.M. Eastern time, but a gathering storm bearing down on Florida's Space Coast remains a major concern.

While waiting on a go/no-go decision from the mission managers yesterday afternoon, I decided to take a little field trip thrown by the people at SpaceX, the builders of the Falcon rocket and Dragon capsule, slated to carry cargo—and later up to seven crew members—to the International Space Station (ISS).

Interviews and tours for the press brought me face to face with the Dragon capsule, which, at least in appearance, recalls both Apollo and the new Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. But what makes it more impressive than the latter is that it has already flown, successfully circling Earth twice before being recovered from the Pacific. I also got to visit the launch pad and see the business end of the Falcon 9 rocket first stage and its nine engines. I had to be careful not to photograph them from the back (and shots down into the front of the cylinder were also verboten), lest the competition might get some free techno tips.

I was hoping founder and CEO Elon Musk, who made his fortune as co-founder of PayPal and head of Tesla Motors, would be there. Ever since the successful orbital flight of the Falcon 9–Dragon spacecraft last year, he seems to have become is the rock star (or is it the Steve Jobs?) of the spacefaring world.

PAYLOAD PAL: The heat-charred Dragon capsule. SpaceX plans to refit and reuse capsules, rather than build a new one for each flight to the ISS. Credit: Michael J. Battaglia

The most famous presenter was former NASA ISS and shuttle veteran Garrett Reisman, who, standing in front of the reentry-seared Dragon capsule, extolled the possibilities afforded by this alternative to government-funded (subsidies and stimulus funds notwithstanding) space travel. A bragging point: Space X is the only private entity to have achieved orbit and recovery, putting it a class shared only with national and international space agencies.

Most impressive though, was the way the whole operation, according to Scott Henderson, director of mission assurance, is run by a staff of 60 and uses a launch pad—that is no-frills, and equipped with bargain basement items, such as a 415,000-liter liquid oxygen tank from Apollo-era that the company bought for $1 over scrap cost.* The pad was abandoned by the U.S. Air Force, who, along with NASA, originally used it to launch Titan 4 rockets, and now provides it to SpaceX free of charge.

"This is what I call 'heavy-lift country,'" said Henderson, a former Air Force commander, as he pointed to the shuttle, rippling in the heat-hazed distance, as well as competitor Delta and Atlas launch complexes. For SpaceX, the idea is to rapidly roll the rocket assembly out lying on its side Soyuz style (rather than rolling out vertically as a stack, like most NASA rockets), stand it up, fuel it, get it off the pad and get ready for another launch. Musk challenged them to have a one-hour turnaround time (versus days to weeks for the shuttle). Henderson admitted they have a way to go. "The first launch," he said, "it was 36 hours ahead of time we rolled out, the second launch was 12, next time we're shooting for six, and maybe we'll get down to one." Time will tell.


NO FRILLS: SpaceX's launch pad, rent-free from the Air Force. The pad was formerly used for heavy-lift Titan rocket launches, including the Cassini-Huygens Saturn orbiter. Credit: Michael J. Battaglia

Lawrence Williams, vice president, strategic relations, who showed off the Falcon 9 booster, was enthusiastic about its cost-effectiveness and simplicity of design, like the staging mechanisms (a leading single-point failure on rockets) as well as its redundant systems, such as the nine motors. With a light payload, he said, "we could have lost as many as four of the nine engines and still be able to make the mission." He also added that because the rocket will carry the Dragon into orbit, "the launch vehicle has been designed to meet human rating requirements." SpaceX wants to fly cargo to the space station by 2012 and, Musk has stated, humans there by 2014.

It's all the right stuff for a viable and profitable way to space. With the shuttle poised for launch in the background symbolizing the past, I was bolstered by the enthusiasm of Musk's crew. Granted this was a positives-only company presentation, I walked away impressed, and hopeful that the private sector can take the handoff from NASA to not only make space accessible again for the U.S., but also turn orbital space into a routine destination, not just for governments, but for visionaries, entrepreneurs, and maybe even us regular human types.  

*Correction (July 8, 2011): This sentence was edited after posting. It originally stated that the liquid oxygen tank was purchased as scrap for $1.