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The New Space Race

Author: Frank G. Klotz, Senior Fellow for Strategic Studies and Arms Control
June 6, 2012
National Interest

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Last week, Space Explorations Technologies, or SpaceX, of Hawthorne, California became the first commercial company to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). In the process, it captivated the popular imagination and secured a permanent place in the annals of space history.

SpaceX's Dragon space vehicle blasted off from Cape Canaveral atop a Falcon 9 booster on May 22. Three days later, it hooked up with the ISS orbiting more than two hundred miles above the Earth. Over the next several days, astronauts on board the space station unloaded fresh supplies from Dragon, then repacked it with materials for the return trip to Earth. The capsule safely de-orbited and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on May 31.

The nine-day mission was a remarkable achievement for the company and its founder, Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk. He and his relatively young team of engineers overcame very long technical odds. They also had to endure the outright skepticism of some space veterans and government officials. Every successful space mission, it is said, requires that ten thousand things go right at the same time. SpaceX made that happen with near perfection—and with the same zeal and self-confidence of earlier space pioneers.

Still, the task ultimately turned out to be harder and take longer than Musk may have imagined when he created SpaceX in 2002. The first three launches of the company's smaller Falcon 1 booster ended in failure. As Musk himself revealed in a recent 60 Minutes interview, if the fourth attempt had not succeeded, SpaceX would not have had the financial resources to try again. Fortunately, in September 2008, a Falcon 1 rocket launched from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific successfully boosted a payload into orbit. Nearly two years later, the larger, more powerful Falcon 9 succeeded on its maiden flight out of Cape Canaveral.

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