Space Exploration Technologies wants to be the go-to cargo company of the future. Also known as SpaceX, the company is developing space launch services that it claims could help the Department of Defense save up to $1 billion a year. The company's Dragon spacecraft became the first commercial spacecraft ever to visit NASA's International Space Station (ISS) in mid-2012. Its Falcon family of vehicles includes Falcon 9, which was successfully launched in the same flight to the ISS with the Dragon, and the Falcon Heavy, which can carry twice as much as NASA's former flagship craft, the Space Shuttle.
After the Falcon 9 was launched, Dragon separated from it and was docked to the ISS, where it stayed for a few days before it was released back to Earth for a splashdown in the Pacific. The operation's success opens the gate for SpaceX to begin making 12 more flights -- compensating for the hole left by the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011 -- with supplies for the station per a $1.6 billion contract with NASA. The government agency has an option to order more service from SpaceX for a total value of $3.1 billion. More generally the retirement of the Space Shuttle creates a new industry that will probably benefit more concerns than SpaceX now that a service that was previously fulfilled by only the government is now open to the private sector. SpaceX additionally has contracts with other public and private space concerns, including Asia Satellite Telecommunications and Loral Space & Communications unit Space Systems/Loral, up to 2017. Altogether its contracts are worth about $4 billion. But SpaceX is anticipating more business besides cargo transportation. The company designed the Dragon capsule to eventually carry passengers and hopes cargo flights will provide the experience needed to develop such a service.
SpaceX's service for the space station is conducted under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, a "pay for performance" partnership between private industry and the government. Focused on developing the transport of cargo in space, COTS gets out of industry's way -- but provides technical assistance -- as it works on developing viable operations for this new market. NASA disburses money once progress milestones are completed. Orbital Sciences is another COTS participant.
The Dragon's body comprises three sections. The first one is the Nosecone, which shields the vessel and its docking adaptor while they rise. The second section is the Spacecraft proper, which holds pressurized cargo and is designed to house personnel once the craft proves its ability to carry them. This section also includes a service compartment that contains avionics, parachutes, and other support items. The third section is the Trunk, which holds unpressurized cargo and deploys a pair of solar arrays, for powering the craft, and thermal radiators.
SpaceX aims to achieve space flight economically by utilizing a more open management structure, carrying out its own manufacturing, and focusing on simple designs. SpaceX has design and manufacturing operations near the Los Angeles International Airport, drawing on the aerospace talent pool available in Southern California. The company's propulsion and structural test facilities are in Central Texas. – less