SpaceX’s Success Gets the Attention of Foreign Space Officials

SpaceX's Falcon 9 on the pad at Cape Canaveral. (Credit: Chris Thompson/SpaceX)
SpaceX's Falcon 9 on the pad at Cape Canaveral. (Credit: Chris Thompson/SpaceX)

SpaceX’s success in launching two Falcon 9 rockets and recovering a Dragon capsule from orbit last year has captured the attention of foreign space officials, who are eager for the services the company can provide and believe that valuable lessons can be learned from how the California-based start-up operates. Simonetta di Pippo, ESA’s director of human spaceflight, said:

“SpaceX certainly got our attention. This is a kind of revolution. We now know they can make it, and so we have to concentrate, on the government side, on new developments. We cannot just stick with our ATV now that the commercial sector is able to do this. Having visited the SpaceX facilities, I am not surprised by their success. But we need to react to it.”

The ATV is a European freighter that carries supplies to the International Space Station. SpaceX’s Dragon will serve that role as well well beginning within the next year.

Di Pippo’s sentiments were echoed by her boss, ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain:

First, he says, ESA must recognise that SpaceX is succeeding with a very different industrial structure than its own, making something like 80% of its rockets’ content in-house.

But most significantly, says Dordain, SpaceX also represents an entirely new type of relationship between government and the space industry. While most of the money invested in developing Falcon 9 and its smaller predecessor, Falcon 1, has come from the US government, SpaceX founder Elon Musk – whose earlier success as co-founder of the online payments system PayPal earned him millions – and a group of private investors have put substantial sums into the programmes.

He doubts that there is scope for a European counterpart of SpaceX because he does not believe the European launch market is big enough to support independent players whose business was based solely on government launch contracts.

Officials at Roscosmos, which will bear sole responsibility for crew transport ISS once the space shuttle retires later this year, are eager to see SpaceX succeed:

Russia’s Federal Space Agency supports the US program on the launch of Dragon spaceships as a back up for Russia’s Soyuz vehicles, the agency’s chief Anatoly Perminov said in Baikonur on Wednesday.

The Canadians are also eying the Dragon as an alternative to the Russian Soyuz spacecraft:

CSA president Steve MacLean says he’s impressed by what SpaceX accomplished, noting Canada will launch a communications satellite atop the Falcon 9 rocket in 2011….

MacLean would not rule it out when asked if a Canadian might hitch a ride on a commercial vessel, like SpaceX’s Dragon.

“If you were to ask me to be a betting man, when the time comes that will be a decision that I could see that could happen,” he told The Canadian Press.

“If everything goes well, and if it shows that to our satisfaction everything is OK, everything is safe and secure, yes, it’s possible.”

MacLean also has his eye on U.S. company Orbital Sciences, which is working on a winged space capsule.

He will have to wait a while for either option. Two launches does not validate the reliability of a rocket.  A significant amount of testing — and money — will be required before anyone flies on a human-rated Dragon. The plan is also dependent upon NASA funding under the CCDev program, as is OSC’s  lifting-body vehicle. NASA will award contracts in the next round of the program in March.