Looking at first glance like an Apollo spacecraft of old, the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft is a private industry ship, has visited space once, and is due on November 30 to launch again, then dock with the International Space Station (ISS) 9 days later.
After years of watching the more advanced-looking Space Transport System, or Space Shuttles, plying their winged bulk into orbit and back, this almost seems like a step backward in time; why do the newest spacecraft look like revamped 1970s models? Are we flying Corvairs to space now?
Yet, the shuttle system, for all its points and faults, was an incredibly expensive system that, when it failed, failed disastrously. The system overall was frighteningly complex, especially the bolted-on rocket boosters and external fuel tank, making the entire assembly an ungainly beast. The heat shield tiles were always the most critical part of the Shuttles, and the most fragile, each of the thousands of tiles capable of dooming a mission if it was lost. The computers were dinosaurs compared to modern systems, and incapable of being upgraded and significantly improved. Although it had an incredible cargo capacity, it could still not carry our largest satellites. And it had no emergency escape system.
And flying beside the shuttles, the Russian Soyuz spacecraft—also as old as the Apollo program—had an incredibly good flight record, and a design that has been only minimally altered to keep up with the 21st century.
So maybe we should take the hint: We just weren’t ready to support a winged Space Shuttle; maybe we were over-reaching; maybe we’re better off with a simpler, less glamorous but more robust design. No more Esplanades; it’s time to go back to F-150s.
That’s where SpaceX seems to be taking us, towards a system that will separate manned capsules and cargo flights (cargo flights will be automated and controlled remotely, as the December docking with the ISS is supposed to be handled). Its design will incorporate the latest in technology, but the actual flight system will be based on tried-and-true vertical lift rockets and parachute landings.
It is hoped that the SpaceX system will be able to handle a significant part of the load of getting materials to the ISS, taking the burden off of the Soyuz system that was recently sold to the European Space Agency. And it may play a part in future spacecraft designs for other missions, becoming the framework around which further-reaching manned and unmanned missions may be designed.
But at this point, it’s mainly good to see America won’t be abandoning its space technology anytime soon… we are privatizing it, a step that perhaps should have been taken a decade or two ago, but better late than never.