In a bit of good news for private citizens dreaming of trips to orbit, the Federal Aviation Administration has just declared that trips aboard private spaceships needn't be one-way. The private space company SpaceX received the FAA's first-ever commercial license permitting the re-entry of a spacecraft into the Earth's atmosphere from orbit, which will allow a December test of its "space taxi" to proceed. In June, SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 9 rocket and a mock-up Dragon crew capsule. The next step is to send the rocket and capsule up to orbit, and then bring them safely back down to Earth with a splash-down landing in the Pacific Ocean. That test is currently scheduled for December 7.
The Dragon is controlled during descent using "Draco" rockets and SpaceX say it should be capable of landing within a small distance - say a few hundred metres - of a designated point. The company hopes to bring it down on land once initial flights have proved the system. [Register]
The Dragon capsule is being designed to ferry cargo and crew for NASA once the space shuttles are retired in 2011. The most recent NASA budget
passed by Congress includes $1.3 billion over three years to support the development of private spacecraft, which could take over routine trips to orbit and free up NASA to investigate more ambitious, deep space missions. But first, SpaceX and its competitors have to prove their technology.
NASA has already awarded SpaceX $1.6 billion in contracts to transport cargo to the International Space Station on the Dragon, starting as early as next year. "With this license in hand, SpaceX can proceed with its launch of the Dragon capsule,” NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said in a statement. “The flight of Dragon will be an important step toward commercial cargo delivery to the International Space Station.” [Los Angeles Times]
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