Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Dragon, you are up.

Most of you reading this probably already have heard about the remarks made by Senator Bill Nelson to the Orlando Sentinel (link) concerning the recent actions taken by Russia in South Ossetia and how it will negatively impact the current negotiations for purchasing Soyuz flights beyond 2011. From what I've read in the mainstream media, they have pretty much taken the Senator's statement to mean that we will be effectively cut off from the ISS after the shuttle is retired until Ares/Orion is ready to fly. However, there is an alternative that they seem to be overlooking.

For over a year now, NASA (and Congress) have been avoiding making a decision on whether or not to provide funding for the COTS-D option. With these latest developments, it seems as though Plan A (continue purchasing Soyuz flights ad nauseum) may no longer be politically feasible. That means that Plan B (development of the crewed SpaceX Dragon capsule) may now start getting some serious support, and resources, thrown its way.

There have been some in the mainstream media who have not looked favorably upon SpaceX after its recent third failure to launch the Falcon I rocket. Some doubt that SpaceX will be able to meet its existing COTS commitments, let alone be able to provide crewed launch capability. As one person commented, "If they can't launch the little one, how do they expect to launch the big one?"

The primary purpose of the "little one" is for rigorously testing, debugging, and characterizing the performance of the very same systems that will eventually fly on the "big one". This is a very sound strategy, and once the Falcon I has successfully shaken out all of the bugs in its systems, I would be very surprised if any of the first flights of the Falcon IX vehicle fail to make it into orbit. The design of the Falcon IX vehicle is more robust than that of the Falcon I, and as such it is much more likely to be able to compensate for any remaining small glitches which may crop up and still succeed in its mission.

Elon Musk has stated on several occasions that SpaceX can close the gap in US access to the ISS. Well, now may be the perfect opportunity for him to get the support he needs to complete work on the crewed Dragon and have it on the pad by 2011. Although I suspect that work on the Dragon capsule has been progressing towards crewed capability regardless of whether or not NASA comes through with the COTS-D funds, additional political and financial support would certainly help things along.

The Ares I/Orion was never going to be able to close the gap in US access to the ISS. NASA has been willing to rely on the "devil they know" with access via Russia's Soyuz capsules, but that may no longer be possible. It now seems like the Dragon capsule may be our best hope (our only hope) for uninterrupted access to the ISS.

Dragon, you're up. Let's see what you can do.

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