NASA has been successful in sending supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) and retrieving returned supplies, thanks in part to teaming up with the independent company SpaceX. Created by Elon Musk, the owner of Tesla Motors, SpaceX made history as the first commercial company to successfully send and retrieve cargo from a voyage to the ISS in 2012. NASA currently has a $1.6 billion contract with the company, which will provide a minimum of 12 voyages to the ISS for the purposes of resupply and cargo extraction.
The potential for within this team-up lies in SpaceX’s goal to make their Dragon model, the one that was used in the ISS flights, capable of sustaining a crew. Musk’s company has already been able to cut the costs of space launches to about $60 million, down from the hundreds of millions which are the average cost of a space launch in modern times. These reduced costs are particularly beneficial to NASA, who have been having budget difficulties that have limited funding for space travel.
The materials brought back from the ISS include results from research regarding drug-resistant bacteria, and focused on how space’s low gravity levels changed their behavior. NASA plans to use this information to help scientists on Earth synthesize new antibiotics that will be more effective.
Musk is also focusing on a revolutionary concept for space travel by striving to develop rockets that can be used multiple times. The reasoning behind this goal is that reusable rockets will drastically reduce costs per launch, as the majority of costs involved in a rocket launch go towards the rocket itself. If SpaceX is able to accomplish its goal of creating rockets that can be used multiple times, Musk believes that the progress would be revolutionary in terms of developing a successful space program.
SpaceX’s first attempts to develop reusable rockets were done with parachutes, but repeated failings caused the company to announce in 2011 that testing would be done to develop a rocket-powered means of safe re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere. Testing and development towards this goal is currently in progress.
The main rocket that is in SpaceX’s development stable is the Falcon 9, the rocket that was responsible for propelling the Dragon to the ISS on the NASA-funded mission in 2012. This rocket is currently undergoing modifications that are intended to allow safe re-entry to Earth that will allow it to be used more than once. The development tests for this rocket involve a separate, scaled-down model of the rocket, known as the Grasshopper. Current tests have recorded this test model reaching an altitude of 744 meters and being able to still land, vertically, on the same launchpad that it lifted off from. Having successfully completed these test, SpaceX plans to begin with low altitude tests of its Falcon 9 rocket.
NASA and SpaceX teaming up has been a successful project, and the success has benefitted both organizations. Facing budget cuts that have made the goal of sending manned missions in the direction of Mars before 2040 unlikely, NASA’s use of the SpaceX company to reduce costs has eased the burden on their yearly budget costs.
By Joseph Chisarick