The Associated Press
The SpaceX Falcon 9 test rocket lifts off from complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Friday.
After today's mind-blowingly successful maiden voyage, SpaceX's brand-new Dragon spaceship could conceivably be sent all they way to the International Space Station on its next trip, the program's NASA manager told reporters.
"What a historic day for commercial spaceflight," said Alan Lindenmoyer, who manages NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program. Today's Cape Canaveral launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Dragon on top marked the first demonstration flight covered by the space agency's $500 million Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, also known as COTS.
During its three-hour, 20-minute flight, the 6-ton Dragon spacecraft made two circuits of the planet at an altitude of 182 miles (300 kilometers) and then splashed down right on target, 500 miles off the coast of Southern California -- thus becoming the first private-sector spacecraft to return safely from low Earth orbit.
Lindenmoyer said the flight showed that the four-year-old public-private approach to next-generation spaceflight was working. Data from the mission will be analyzed to fine-tune the Dragon and its launch vehicle for further tests.
The COTS program was designed to support the development of private-sector spaceships capable of transferring cargo to the space station once the shuttle fleet retires. That retirement is now set to take place around the middle of next year, after what's expected to be three more flights.
SpaceX is getting $278 million from COTS to build and test the Falcon 9 and Dragon launch system, and the company has more than matched that amount with private funding. The Falcon 9 had its first flight test in June, but for that launch, the rocket merely carried a test capsule and not an operational Dragon.
Next year, the Dragon is due to be launched on a seciond demonstration flight that would have it approach the space station.
SpaceX's millionaire founder, Elon Musk, would like NASA's go-ahead to go all the way to a station docking on that upcoming flight -- and although Lindenmoyer wasn't willing to give a firm commitment, he signaled that NASA might be receptive to a proposal for speeding up the development timeline.
"We'll certainly give it good consideration," Lindenmoyer said during today's post-mission briefing at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. If the Dragon doesn't dock with the station during the second demonstration flight, that task would be put on the agenda for a third flight.
Via a video link from SpaceX's California headquarters, Musk said today's flight showed that Dragon could realistically take cargo to the space station -- and bring cargo back to Earth as well.
"The key takeaway today is, it's going to happen," the 39-year-old former dot-com entrepreneur said. "It's not an 'if,' it's a 'when.'"
SpaceX and another recipient of COTS funding, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp., have already been awarded a total of $3.5 billion in contracts for cargo deliveries to the space station through 2016.
NASA is also providing some preliminary funding for the development of commercial spaceships capable of transporting space station crew members, but has not yet committed to using any private-sector transports.
For now, the plan calls for NASA to purchase rides from the Russians after the shuttles are retired.
SpaceX has said the Dragon could be upgraded with the required safety equipment for carrying astronauts within three years after making a deal with NASA, for a per-flight cost that would be competitive with what the Russians are asking.
"People sometimes think that to take a cargo spacecraft and put a crew into it requires this enormous amount of magical pixie dust," Musk said. "This is not at all the case. If there had been people sitting in the Dragon capsule today, they would have had a very nice ride."
Before the flight, Musk gave the mission only a 60 to 70 percent chance of success. Afterward, he said the extent of the mission's success was "mind-blowingly awesome."
"This has really been better than I expected. ... It's actually almost too good," he said.
It was so good, in fact, that Musk sometimes found himself at a loss for words. "I'm sort of in semi-shock," he said. "I wish I could be more articulate at moments like this, but, um, I think it's just sort of a natural reaction which kind of blows my mind. It's hard to be articulate with a blown mind."
He was articulate enough to thank NASA for its assistance with the technologies that were incorporated into the Falcon 9 and the Dragon. "We're only here because we stand on the shoulders of giants," Musk said.
Musk echoed Lindenmoyer's view that the commercial approach to spaceflight was the best way to build the successors to NASA's space shuttles.
At one point, a panel looking at deficit reduction measures that could be pursued by the next Congress suggested cutting NASA's funding for commercial space development.
But in its final report, the panel shied away from making a specific recommendation for reducing that funding.
In the past, companies such as SpaceX have come under criticism from some in Congress, as well as from space heroes such as Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan. During a congressional hearing in May,
Cernan -- the last man to walk on the moon -- complained that such companies "do not yet know what they don't know."
Today, Musk was asked what he would say to SpaceX's detractors. "If there really are people who are going to still find a way to cast aspersions on what was done today, I pity them ... because they'll be fighting on the wrong side of yesterday's war," Musk replied.
More from the post-mission briefing:
• Musk said that the Falcon 9's first stage could not be recovered after today's launch, but he said a "black box" being installed on the stage would help with recovery during future missions. He stressed that getting back the first stage was not an objective for this test mission. In the long run, however, reusability would be an important feature of the Falcon launch system.
• The Falcon 9's second stage was restarted during the mission and rose to an altitude of more than 6,800 miles (11,000 kilometers), Musk said. Secondary satellite payloads -- including a U.S. Army nanosatellite -- were released during the flight. Musk said the deployment of small satellites during future missions to the space station could provide an extra source of revenue for the company.
• Musk said the next-generation Dragon would be equipped with a thruster system that would allow the craft to land on a pad, "kind of like Eagle landing on the moon" during Apollo 11.
• The Dragon carried thousands of patches for company employees -- as well as a humorous payload that Musk declined to reveal until later, so as not to detract from today's headlines. "If you like Monty Python, you'll love the secret," he teased.
That led several observers to speculate that the payload was a can of Spam. That would be a clever reference to the Monty Python comedy troupe's Spam-themed skits, as well as famed test pilot Chuck Yeager's crack that Mercury astronauts were merely "Spam in a can." If the mystery payload wasn't Spam ... well, it should have been.