A private space company run by one of the founders of internet bank PayPal has launched a bid to fly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.
SpaceX chief Elon Musk says the company’s Falcon 9 is the ideal rocket for carrying humans into orbit after the shuttle fleet is retired next year. They would fly in an attached capsule, called Dragon.
NASA’s own replacement craft – which will use an Apollo-style capsule atop a new Ares launch vehicle – is not due to be ready to carry astronauts until 2014.
Without the shuttle, America will have to rely on Russia to fly all manned missions until Ares puts them back in the game.
SpaceX has already won a competition for a NASA contract to fly cargo to the space station in Dragon once further flight tests of their Falcon 9 rocket are complete.
The final test flight, scheduled for next year (2010), will demonstrate Dragon’s ability to dock with the space station. Once that is successfully achieved, SpaceX will begin the first of 12 cargo flights to the orbiting outpost, 230 miles above the Earth.
Musk is calling on the US government to back his bid with $300 million (£208m) of funding, arguing that he will be able to fly astronauts for less than $20 million (£14m) a seat, compared to the $47 million (£33m) that NASA would have to pay to fly them in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
He said: “Most people aren’t aware that SpaceX designed the F9/Dragon system to carry astronauts as well as cargo, and even the word “cargo” here includes biological payloads like plants and mice.
“F9/Dragon meets all the NASA human rating requirements through all phases of flight and abort. Dragon even has several windows and hatches that open both inwards and outwards to ensure astronauts can exit if a pressure relief valve fails.”
Musk said that NASA will certify Dragon as habitable for crew in any case, as it will become an integral part of the Space Station which astronauts will be able to occupy for sleep or relaxation.
He added: “The only significant missing element is the launch escape rocket, which carries the Dragon spacecraft to safety in the event of a launch vehicle failure. That can be developed within two years, which means F9/Dragon can be ready to transport astronauts by mid to late 2011.
“By that date, Falcon 9 will have flown a dozen times and Dragon will have done a round trip journey to the Space Station roughly half a dozen times with cargo, proving out reliability well in advance of carrying people.”
NASA’s outgoing Administrator Mike Griffin has called for Europe’s own new cargo vessel, the Automated Transfer Vehicle, to be converted to carry crew.
Picture: A SpaceX impression of Falcon 9 flying a manned Dragon with escape rocket attached (Picture: SpaceX).
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