10 years ago, a SpaceX launch showed NASA they could work with Elon Musk

Ten years ago, on May 22, 2012, Elon Musk’s SpaceX made history. The company became the fourth entity, after the United States, Russia and China, to launch a spacecraft into orbit and return it to Earth on May 31 of that year. The feat fundamentally changed the course of the next decade of space exploration.

That mission, the Dragon C2/3, was also the first commercial spacecraft to dock with another spacecraft — the International Space Station, in the case of SpaceX — on May 24, 2012, and it was also the first commercial spacecraft to return cargo to Earth.

At the time, Musk reportedly stated in a press conference, “This mission heralds the beginning of a new era of space exploration, one where there is a significant commercial space element.”

He was right. Dennis Stone, a commercial space manager at NASA who was directly involved, says the mission “heralded a new era of commercial space services.”

These achievements cemented SpaceX’s place as NASA’s private partner of choice for launching crew and supplies to the International Space Station. But it also sparked a debate about public and private partnerships for space science that is still raging today.

Why NASA turned to SpaceX

Since 1981, NASA’s Space Shuttle program has been responsible for transporting people and cargo to and from space — but in 2011, the Space Shuttle was set to retire. To get people and goods into space, NASA needed a new, cost-effective way to keep the ISS and other near-Earth space research and exploration operational without paying for a shuttle itself.

“In preparation for the end of the Space Shuttle, NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services began investing SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation—now Northrop Grumman—in 2006 to move cargo to and from Low Earth Orbit,” explains Stone.

“Each company developed a launch vehicle and a cargo spacecraft that could rendezvous and dock at the International Space Station.”

Later, NASA awarded one of the first Commercial Resupply Services contracts to SpaceX. These relate to individual flights funded by NASA to deliver cargo to the ISS using commercially operated spacecraft.

SpaceX received $1.6 billion dollars for twelve partially reusable cargo spacecraft from the company: Dragon. Dragons are launched into orbit using SpaceX’s flagship rocket, the Falcon 9.

Dragon takes flight

The first time Dragon took to the air – in December 2010 – also marked the first launches of COTS and CRS. During this first mission, the second launch of Falcon 9, Dragon entered Earth orbit – a first for commercial spaceships. But the return wasn’t quite as smooth: the Dragon craft disintegrated on its way back to Earth before its parachutes could be activated.

“It’s been a remarkable achievement to get this far so quickly,” said Phil McAlister, then acting director of Commercial Space Flight Development at NASA.

“However this spaceflight goes, we are committed to this program.”

The following SpaceX missions were given a combined designation: Dragon C2/3. The test flight’s namesake is itself a testament to the success of the collaboration between SpaceX and NASA to date — originally intended as two separate test flights, the agency decided to integrate them into one mission.

Before being rolled into one, SpaceX’s Dragon C2 had to practice its movements and communication for an eventual encounter with the ISS. The space capsule would then return from Earth orbit — hopefully in one piece. The second mission, Dragon C3, was to test whether Dragon could dock to the ISS as planned.

Between July and December 2011, NASA gave chase and approved Dragon C2/3.

The mission “demonstrated a new paradigm for investing in commercial capabilities that can be shared by government and private sector customers,” Stone said.

Then, after a series of delays, the Dragon C2/3 was finally launched on May 22, 2012. It docked at the ISS on May 24, 2012 — making it the first commercial ship to dock with another ship in space.

“Not only has this saved NASA money, but it has also fueled the development of a robust commercial space industry in the US. It was a truly amazing moment for space,” added Stone. (Stone notes that “a few days ago, Boeing successfully demonstrated that it could reach the ISS with its crew spacecraft, and thus will join SpaceX in providing commercial crew services to and from the ISS.”)

NASA’s Commercial Future

The mission was a resounding success. A 2017 cost analysis by NASA analyst Edgar Zapata unequivocally states, “The development of COTS and later the operational Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) are significant advances in affordability anyway.”

To understand why it was so much more affordable to outsource flights to SpaceX, it’s worth considering a separate analysis by NASA engineer Harry Jones, conducted in 2018. It suggests the cost of NASA’s Space Shuttle were exorbitant — launching one kilogram of material into space costs $54,500, according to Jones estimates. SpaceX reduced that number to $2,720 per kilogram using the Falcon 9.

Both analyzes further argue that as NASA undertakes more missions to deep space, cost savings will prove invaluable due to the increased need for space infrastructure. But in turn, the commercial sector seems to need government support just as much — or, at least, Elon Musk made it seem so after its launch in 2012.

“I’d like to start by saying what a tremendous honor it is to work with NASA,” Musk said during a post-flight press conference on the National Space Society’s website.

“And to recognize that we couldn’t have launched SpaceX, nor would we have gotten to this point without the help of NASA.”

SpaceX battles for dominance

But the involvement of commercial entities like SpaceX in helping NASA achieve its scientific goals has met with some resistance. Russia used to be the main source of transportation for astronauts to the ISS – and they weren’t happy about the lost business. NASA used Russian Soyuz spaceships at a cost of $86 billion per seat, according to a 2020 Forbes report.

The main concern, according to Russia, was that the SpaceX Dragon capsule did not meet Roscosmos (Russian Space Agency) safety standards, according to a Denver Post story from that time.

At the time, Keith Cowing (a former NASA employee and the editor of the American space blog NASA Watch) suspected that Russia wanted to claim a monopoly on space transport with their Soyuz spaceships.

Regardless of the motivation for Russia’s hesitation about the SpaceX-NASA partnership, the Dragon C2/3’s success laid the foundation for a rapid expansion in commercial space technology.

Initially designed as an unmanned capsule, Dragon capsules are now manned and increasingly cost-effective, competing with the Russian Soyuz as the primary means of transportation for astronauts to the ISS. According to one report, the cost of a full launch of the Dragon starship is $55 million. To date, there have been 23 Dragon launches.

Now, ten years after Dragon C2/3’s ill-fated launch, collaboration between NASA and commercial companies is growing. In the same press conference following the launch of Dragon C2/3, Musk suggested that the mission marked the beginning of an era of accelerated technological progress.

“It’s like the advent of the Internet in the mid-1990s, when commercial companies started what was originally a government effort,” he reportedly said.

“That move dramatically accelerated the pace of progress and made the Internet accessible to the mass market. I think we are at a similar inflection point for space. I hope and believe that this mission will be historic in marking that turning point towards a rapid advances in space transport technology.”

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