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SpaceX passes safety review for human spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, News Writer
Nov 17, 2013, 8:00 UTC

Sen—After two days of meetings late last month with SpaceX -- which is best known for its Dragon cargo spacecraft -- NASA expressed satisfaction so far with the forthcoming human-rated version of the vessel and Falcon 9 rocket that will carry it to space.

"The milestone is not the end of the safety discussion; it's really the beginning," stated Jon Cowart, deputy manager of the NASA Partnership Integration Team for CCP.

"Because we've been doing this for so long, we all have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn't, and how safety processes can be strengthened to increase our confidence in the system."

SpaceX was a pioneer in cargo transporation to the International Space Station, as its Dragon spacecraft became the first commercial vehicle to dock with the orbiting complex in May 2012, and started regular service to the station in October 2012. Another US company, Orbital Sciences, recently became the second commercial operator with a successful test flight.

While all of the Dragon spacecraft made it to station, there have been some issues along the way. SpaceX's October 2012 flight put a satellite in too low of an orbit, for example, when one of the nine Dragon rocket engines shut off early. Also, a thruster problem on a March 2013 flight delayed delivery of cargo to the space station. SpaceX's hard-earned space-experience, nevertheless, is surely coming into play as the California-based company develops its human-rated version of Dragon for NASA.

SpaceX is one of three companies currently receiving funding under NASA's Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative to allow humans to take off from American soil again. The number of funded firms could drop if the fiscal 2014 budget for NASA contains less money for CCiCap than the agency hopes, providing a spur for SpaceX to do well in the latter stages of Dragon's development.

The company so far has finished nine of the 15 milestones under CCiCap, and now projects the process will finish in the third quarter of 2014. Some of SpaceX's major work next year includes testing the launch abort system at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. One test (in Q2 2014) will do a simulated abort before a launch, while the second (in Q3 2014) will see a Dragon physically separate from the Falcon 9 booster in mid-air before parachuting to the Atlantic Ocean.

"We greatly appreciate NASA’s support and feedback throughout this process," said Garrett Reisman, commercial crew project manager at SpaceX and a former astronaut. "Together we are taking all the necessary steps to make Dragon the safest, most reliable spacecraft ever flown."

On top of its commercial cargo and crew programs, SpaceX has been working on developing reusable rockets. It flew several flights of a Falcon 9 test rig, codenamed Grasshopper, to demonstrate the feasibility of a rocket that could fly itself back to the pad. It is hoped that developing reusable rockets will cut down on launch costs, allowing SpaceX to stay competitive in the global launch services market.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk is well-known for his desires to head to Mars. In 2012, he said his company would be looking to develop a manned mission in the next 10 to 15 years. One of his more famous quotes on this topic: "I would like to die on Mars; just not on impact."