The date of August 18, 2006 forever changed the SpaceX orbit.
That day, NASA awarded SpaceX a contract to develop a service to deliver goods to the International Space Station. This “Commercial Orbital Transportation Services” agreement would pay SpaceX $ 278 million to design and develop a spaceship and rocket for that purpose – what became known as Cargo Dragon and Falcon 9.
At that time, SpaceX was only four years old. The company had tried a single launch of its Falcon 1 rocket from an Pacific atoll a few months earlier. This little rocket, capable of putting hundreds of kilos into orbit, had flown for about half a minute before falling back to earth and crashing into a reef just off the coast. The rocket failed because the fuel leak, even before the cleaned launch pad, caused the engine to catch fire.
This was hardly a good record for a space airline. So at that time NASA made a big effort on a SpaceX. Last summer, I asked Gwynne Shotwell, then Vice President of Business Development for SpaceX, what this original NASA contract meant for the company in 2006.
“Oh, it was really important money,” she said. “We were a small company. We were jacked at that time. We had only one failure on the cushion. We blew a rocket in March of that year. Yes, it was super critical. From my perspective, NASA acknowledged that even though we had failed with Falcon 1 so they felt we had the right attitude and technology to extend this to a much larger rocket, Falcon 9 and a canister. “
Get Dragon to breathe fire
For the next half decade, SpaceX would design, develop and test its Cargo Dragon spaceship. As usual, the company saw to reduce costs and increase the traditional aerospace model. For example, to store supplies for the trip into space, Dragon would need to have a mix of powered cabinets (both to keep scientific experiments cold in the fridge, as well as give astronauts a treat like real ice cream) as well as open compartments that larger bags could be attached to in.
For the cabinet, SpaceX sought out the seller used by the space station program. The existing cabinet design required two latches to open and close each compartment, and the seller wanted $ 1,500 per latch. This seemed way too expensive. Around that time, during a break in the toilet, a SpaceX engineer found inspiration when he thought of the lock on a stall. Perhaps he wondered that the company’s internal engineers could make a similar block. With $ 30 in parts, the company manufactured its own locking mechanisms that proved to be more reliable than the expensive, flight-rated locks.
From 2012, SpaceX flew its first cargo assignment to the station. On Tuesday, Cargo Dragon completed its 20th and final flight to the station, splashed down into the Pacific. (For future delivery assignments, SpaceX will use a modified version of Crew Dragon, which has 20 percent larger volume and twice as much powered cabinet capacity).
Over the past eight years, various Dragon spacecraft have spent a total of 547 days connected to the space station, moving more than 450,000 kg of cargo to the space station and returning more than 35,000 kg of scientific experiments and other cargo back to Earth.
For this service, SpaceX NASA offered a pretty good deal. According to the space agency’s own analysis, NASA’s investments in SpaceX bought a service that cost as much as 10 times less than the traditional cost plus the contracting method and two to three times less than the cost of continuing to fly goods on the space shuttle.
The dominoes are falling
SpaceX, in turn, got part of a deal. From this initial award, it is not difficult to follow the dominoes that fall for California rocket companies. The NASA contract allowed SpaceX to quickly expand its workforce from dozens to hundreds and invest in brilliant young minds to reach far-reaching goals.
NASA wanted lots of cargo sent into space on each mission, and this drove SpaceX to a larger rocket. So instead of Falcon 5 (a booster with five Merlin engines) that Elon Musk and the company’s engineers planned as a follow-up to Falcon 1, SpaceX jumped straight to the now familiar Falcon 9 rocket. A rocket of this size was large enough, not only for NASA but for SpaceX to compete for both commercial satellite launches and large military payloads.
By flying Falcon 9 rockets regularly for NASA, SpaceX was then able to gather valuable information about the flight profile of the first stage returning through the atmosphere. Through this process, SpaceX tested the concept of supersonic retropropulsion, which enabled the use of Falcon 9 engines to control the rocket’s return to Earth. This experiment led directly to both land and sea-based landings of Falcon 9 rockets.
In 2014, at least in part because SpaceX successfully delivered cargo to the space station, the company was awarded a contract to also deliver astronauts. The first Crew Dragon mission with Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken is now likely to occur at the end of May or June. At the end of last month, a modified version of Dragon, known as XL, was awarded a contract to deliver cargo to the payroll in the mid-2020s.
In less than 15 years, the jackasses have since developed a spaceship that has become something of a jack-of-all trade.
Listing image of NASA