On Monday, NASA gave tentative approval to private space exploration company Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) for a November 30, 2011 launch date for the first cargo delivery to the International Space Station (ISS) by a private company.
The technical sign-off by NASA is expected shortly.
The Hawthorne, California-based private rocket-maker SpaceX plans to fly its Dragon capsule to the ISS months sooner than originally planned. Owner and founder Elon Musk (also founder of PayPal and Zip2 Corp.) believes the accelerated launch date will facilitate the smooth transition from government funded exploration to privately owned companies, taking much of the financial burden of space travel off of the government and placing it into the hands of individual holders.
In statement, SpaceX said that by combining government and private funding, it hopes to increase the reliability, safety and frequency of space travel.
The sped up launch may also silence any misgivings that private space companies may not be able to sufficiently fill the void left by NASA's recently retired shuttles.
After nine days of orbit, the Dragon will dock at the ISS to deliver the first few hundred pounds of crew supplies to orbit. If all goes well with the mission, the Dragon capsules expect to begin regular cargo-delivery missions for NASA in 2012, under a $1.6 billion commercial contract designed to pay the company on a commission-based schedule of the total amount of material shipped to the space station.
The average price of a full-up NASA Dragon cargo mission to the International Space Station is $133 million. This price includes the costs of the Falcon 9 launch, the Dragon spacecraft, all operations, maintenance and overhead, and all of the work required to integrate with the Space Station.
In an effort to maintain the ISS while NASA is out of orbit, President Obama is seeking to shift maintenance to private space shuttles under government surveillance.
The November launch "kicks off what will be a rapid increase in the frequency" of SpaceX operations, said a company spokeswoman. In December 2010, the Dragon made the world's first private trip to orbit and back. Depending on demand, the company said it plans to launch up to six Dragon capsules annually.
Along with the ISS mission, SpaceX and other commercial-space groups are utilizing government funds to research and build larger rockets and capsules capable of transporting astronauts to the ISS and further into deep space.
In April NASA awarded SpaceX $75 million to develop a launch escape system that would allow the Dragon to conduct manned-missions. The award is part of the agency's Commercial Crew Development initiative that started in 2009 to help private companies mature concepts and technologies for human space flight.
So far, preparations are looking good for SpaceX, who successfully completed a wet dress rehearsal for the Falcon 9 Flight 3 launch vehicle earlier this week in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Various technological and maintenance improvements have yielded faster launch sequences and a smoother lift off which is crucial if November's launch is to go off without a hitch.