SpaceX Must Step Up to Its New Mission
May 21, 2012
Proving that the space business is not for the faint-of-heart, Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX [Space Exploration Technologies, Inc.], a private space company owned by 40-year-old billionaire Elon Musk, walks on the razors’ edge. With only a half-second left before liftoff, Musk and his SpaceX mission control crew aborted a Friday, May 19 liftoff at Cape Canaveral. SpaceX won NASA’s new Space Transportation System bid after the Space Shuttle Atlantis [STS-135] finished its final mission July 21, 2011, officially ending for the foreseeable future NASA’s role in manned space operations. Handing the STS contract to the upstart SpaceX was a huge boon to Musk’s 10-year-old company, winning $278 million Aug. 18, 2006 of NASA seed money for Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contract. Musk won NASA’s $1.6 billion contract Dec. 23, 2008 to re-supply the International Space Station.
After successfully launching its Dragon Space Vehicle atop a Falcon-9 rocket June 4, 2010, Musk completed a launch, earth orbit and recovery operation when the Dragon Spacecraft parachuted into the Pacific Ocean. Aborting the Cape Canaveral launch a half-second before liftoff shows the kind of precision needed for unmanned and manned space operations. “Three, two, one, zero and liftoff,” announced space commentator George Diller. “We’ve had a cutoff. Liftoff did not occur,” attesting to the dangers of real space flights. Blaming the failure on Engine 5’s high combustion chamber, SpaceX President Shotwell identified the faulty valve as the culprit. “This is not a failure. It would be a failure if we were to have lifted off with an engine trending it this direction,” said Shotwell, trying to find a silver lining to what could have been a more serious problem
Expected to repair the problem and ready a new Cape Canaveral launch Tuesday, May 22, the Dragon spacecraft is due to dock with the ISS, ferrying supplies, just as once performed by the Space Shuttle. Expected cargo on the Falcon-9 rocket were canisters of the cremated remains of original Star Trek actor James “Scotty” Doohan and Mercury Astronaut Gordon Cooper and more than 300 other cremated earthlings, contracted through cosmic funeral company Celestis, carrying cremated remains of untold numbers of deceased into the cosmos for hefty fees. When the rocket stage separates from the Dragon capsule nine minutes after liftoff, they should orbit the earth before plunging and burning up into the atmosphere. Given SpaceX’s primary mission as NASA’s Space Transportation System to ferry supplies and eventually astronauts to the ISS, space burials should be ended.
News of SpaceX ferrying canisters of cremated dust into space cheapens its new responsibility of carrying the burden of the U.S. space program for NASA. Since Columbia’s maiden voyage April 12, 1981, not a single mission included “burials-in-space.” No matter what the commercial benefits, NASA never cheapened the Shuttle’s mission by carrying cremated ashes into space. “We have to make sure it would not interfere in any way with our mission objectives before we allowed it to go into the rocket,” said Alan Lindenmoyer, NASA’s point person with SpaceX. Whether it interferes or not with SpaceX’s contracted job as Commercial Orbiter Transportation Services, Musk must stop immediately frivolous uses of his COTS contract. If SpaceX needs more money, it needs to negotiate better terms with NASA, not engage bogus funeral companies for space-flights.
Friday’s aborted launch should remind SpaceX’s mission control that the next phase of Dragon’s mission, namely, manned space operations, can’t tolerate any distractions, or missions outside the job of eventually ferrying astronauts and supplies to the ISS. Contracting with cosmic funeral companies cheapens SpaceX’s outstanding track record as the nation’s premier private-sector space company. You don’t hear the Russian Soyuz capsule, currently the only way to ferry humans and supplies to the ISS, capitalizing on kooky cosmic burial services. Nor do you hear the Chinese Shenzhou spacecraft fooling around with canopic jars sending carbonized remains into space. Chinese space officials have made it clear they intend to be the first one back to the moon. Given SpaceX’s billion-dollar-plus NASA contract to takeover where the Shuttle ended, SpaceX must stop the space circus.
Commercializing space travel must be carefully considered, including Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, capitalizing on well-heeled customers’ needs for bigger-and-betters thrills. While there’s nothing wrong with commercializing space, Musk cannot cheapen SpaceX’s mission—no matter how profitable—by flying cremated remains of the rich-and-eccentric into space. Giving the superrich an opportunity at space travel or to visit the ISS has already been done successfully by the Russians. SpaceX should work round-the-clock sparing no resources to begin manned space operations at the earliest time. When NASA dropped the ball on manned space operations ending its Shuttle program July 21, 2011, it was SpaceX that held the last shot for the U.S. Space Program. Ferrying cremated remains into space hurts SpaceX’s credibility as the U.S.’s last, best hope back to space.
About the AuthorJohn M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma
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