SpaceX’s successful launch of its new and improved Falcon 9 rocket from California continues its leadership position as it competes for billion-dollar NASA contracts with competitors like Orbital Sciences Corp, Blue Origin, and others.
Based in Hawthorne, California,SpaceX’s full name is Space Exploration Technologies Corporation. The private space flight company founded by American Paypal entrepreneur Elon Musk has enjoyed pole position in the new private space race almost since the beginning. SpaceX was the first private company to send a payload of cargo from Earth to the International Space Station (ISS). Its launch of the Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California is particularly crucial, as the West Coast is considered the best launch option for payloads that have polar orbits, while East Coast launches are generally limited to equatorial orbits. With a choice between both coasts of the U.S. for its launches, SpaceX has greatly expanded its options.
Arcing over the Pacific and beyond as it escaped gravity to reach Earth’s orbit, the Falcon 9 launch also fueled UFO orbits. Observers across southern Africa and the islands of Mauritius and Reunion in the Indian Ocean excitedly reported the appearance of a fuzzy-looking unidentified glowing object, and speculation as to the object’s origin appeared in local papers. However, the mystified sightings clearly referred to the Falcon 9, and its position relative to the setting sun in those areas give a glow to the cloud of released rocket fuel issuing from the craft. “This release by chance coincided with sunset beneath that part of the orbit, as the booster and its deployed satellites flew from south to north directly over Madagascar, about 850 miles high,” explained NBC News space analyst James Oberg.
The successful Falcon 9 mission for SpaceX came on the same weekend as Orbital Sciences Corp, one of the other companies who compete for NASA work, also reached a milestone. The company’s Cygnus cargo ship made its first successful docking with the ISS. This crucial mission for Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp launched without incident from the newly enhanced spaceport in Wallops Island, Virginia, but a computer problem delayed its docking for almost a week. Failure would have endangered the $1.9 billion contract Orbital Sciences Corp has with NASA for cargo deliveries to the ISS through 2016.
By contrast, SpaceX has already mounted two successful supply missions to the ISS as well as two demonstration missions. And both companies are well ahead of Blue Origin, another commercial space company owned by Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos. The various rivalries of this private space race have recently erupted in a highly contentious war of words. Elon Musk had some harsh things to say about Blue Origin and another company, United Launch Alliance, as the various organizations jockeyed for control of existing launch pads.
“[Blue Origin] has not yet succeeded in creating a reliable suborbital spacecraft, despite spending over 10 years in development,” Musk said in an email. “If they do somehow show up in the next 5 years with a vehicle qualified to NASA’s human rating standards that can dock with the Space Station, which is what Pad 39A is meant to do, we will gladly accommodate their needs. Frankly, I think we are more likely to discover unicorns dancing in the flame duct.”
As the technology improves, and NASA work and other missions become more frequent as SpaceX competes with Orbital Sciences Corp, Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance, and others in the open field of private space transport, these rivalries are likely to heat up even further.
Written by Jeremy Forbing