Year of the Dragon

It may not seem like it, but the world changed on May 31, 2012. Less than a year after the Space Shuttles were retired, an American spaceship had once again reached the space station and returned safely. Launched on a Falcon 9 rocket on May 22, the flight had been practically trouble-free. It had delivered more than a thousand pounds worth of cargo to the station, and had returned with more than 1400 pounds.

Since this was a test mission, the Dragon was not fully loaded in either direction. But once it goes into regular service later this year, it is capable of hauling about 13,000 pounds to orbit and returning with more than 6600 pounds.

Of all the currently flying spaceships, Dragon is the only one that can return materials back to Earth. The other cargo ships—the Russian Progress, the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle, and the Japanese HTV can only take materials into orbit. They can never return to Earth. Only Dragon can survive reentry and land safely—and then be reused over and over again.

This flight of the Dragon was described as the first commercial flight to the space station. But some critics have asked: haven’t all of America’s spaceships been built by private companies such as Boeing or Lockheed? How is this product from SpaceX any different?

When the government buys a rocket from Boeing, not only has the government told Boeing in some detail exactly what it wants, it has supervised the design and construction of said rocket very carefully. More significantly, the contract Boeing has with the government is what is called a “cost-plus” contract. That is, Boeing gets the government to not only pay for the rocket and all its development costs, it also gets the government to pay for any and all cost overruns. If something goes wrong during development, the government will cough up ever more money to cover all the costs. If it turns out that Boeing can’t provide the product at their originally predicted cost, the government must fork over the extra money Boeing decides it needs.

With SpaceX, the contract doesn’t work that way. SpaceX developed both the Falcon 9 and the Dragon mostly on their own dime. The government did not dictate the design and it did not closely supervise the building. More importantly, SpaceX gets paid only the originally agreed upon price. If SpaceX should have trouble, should get behind, should have an accident, SpaceX has to eat the cost. If SpaceX underestimated how much it would cost to produce the spacecraft, SpaceX loses money. The government won’t bail them out.

Let’s put it this way. Let’s pretend that when you buy something, you buy it the way the government normally buys things. Say you want to buy a bicycle. You go to Wal-Mart, tell them what you want, supervise them as they build it, and then pay them for it. When you get home with the bike, you suddenly get a call from Wal-Mart: “You need to send us another hundred dollars. Our operating expenses have gone through the roof this quarter.” And then, six months later, you get another call, “We’re having trouble making the chain work on these new models. We need another thousand dollars from you.” That’s how it works for the government with most things it buys from Boeing or Lockheed, whether fighter jets or rockets.

Not so with SpaceX. The government is merely purchasing a service from SpaceX. SpaceX developed the Falcon 9 on its own, initially using only its own money, designing everything itself. In fact, everything from the engines to the electronics of the spaceship is designed and built in their Hawthorn plant in Southern California. NASA told them what they needed to have to human rate the craft, and what it needed to have in order to dock with the Space Station; but otherwise, NASA had nothing to do with the development and design of the rocket. SpaceX was founded in 2002; it didn’t get any money from NASA until 2006, long after the company had designed and started building the rockets. And the government is not SpaceX’s only customer. They have almost 4 billion dollars in flight orders from a variety of corporations and foreign governments. The Falcon 9, the Dragons—they all still belong to SpaceX. From the government’s point of view, it’s sort of like renting a car at the airport, or paying FedX to deliver a package.

NASA will pay SpaceX as it succeeds in delivering at least 12 cargo ships to the station (with the potential for more later if NASA remains satisfied with their work). And later, after multiple cargo deliveries, SpaceX intends to add seats and a life-support system to the Dragon so it can start ferrying human beings to the station and elsewhere. The company ultimately plans to make human trips to Mars both common and affordable. In fact, getting people to Mars was the reason Elon Musk founded the company. Delivering cargo to the space station is merely a way to make some money and get some practice so SpaceX can reach its long term goal.

And that’s why what happened on May 31, 2012 is so remarkable. Space travel has been turned into a simple and ordinary business.

And that will ultimately make spaceflight both cheap and common. Someday you won’t find spaceships any more exotic than UPS trucks or a jet planes. Another cargo ship reaching the space station might not seem so special. But twenty years ago, who knew how important the internet would become?

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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