It’s almost, but not quite, becoming routine. Private aerospace company SpaceX is on its third mission to the International Space Station, delivering cargo, including fresh fruit to the crew. It launched on March 1.
There’s been a glitch on each of the three missions. First time, the Dragon spacecraft had trouble docking when its lidar range finder couldn’t lock on to the station. Second time, the Falcon 9 launch vehicle lost an engine on the way up. And this time, the Dragon had trouble getting its thrusters to fire.
In each case, the F9 and Dragon made the mission. I say this is actually a great track record for a brand new launch vehicle and spacecraft. These machines are still in the shakeout phase. There’s really no way to test these things except in flight, no other way to find and correct potential glitches. The F9 engine failure became an unplanned test of the launch vehicle’s engine-out capability. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has been saying all along that the vehicle was designed with this capability, allowing it to reach orbit even in the case of an engine failure, and that second mission proved it. Future F9 customers should have increased confidence in the rocket as a result.
The Dragon is now berthed to the International Space Station, serenely awaiting its cargo to be packed for the return to Earth. This is the only vehicle now in existence with the capability to return significant amounts of cargo to Earth. That, plus its very existence, is a boon to NASA, which had no native capacity to reach the station after the Space Shuttle retired in 2011.
SpaceX is demonstrating that NASA’s biggest shift in its manned program since the Apollo moon landings—namely hiring private flights instead of owning and operating vehicles itself—was the right move for getting back to space as quickly as possible post-Shuttle.