Private Dragon Spacecraft's Next Mission Could Visit Space Station, SpaceX Says
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft lift off from Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 10:43 a.m. EST in this photo taken Dec. 8, 2010 during the key space capsule flight test for NASA's commercial orbital space transportation program.
Credit: NASA/Alan Ault

After the first successful launch and recovery of SpaceX?s Dragon capsule on Wednesday (Dec. 8), the commercial spaceflight company is looking forward to an ambitious future. The Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX will now perform a battery of tests on the Dragon, analyzing every inch of the capsule, to prepare for the new vehicle's next test flight. [INFOGRAPHIC: Inside Look at SpaceX's Dragon Capsule]

"The first thing we?re going to do is examine the spacecraft very, very closely," SpaceX CEO Elon Musk ? who also co-founded the online payment system PayPal ? said in a post-mission news briefing Wednesday. "We?re going to do deep forensics on it to see, did anything break? Is there any place we should be, perhaps, strengthening?"

The success also has company officials targeting even loftier goals in the future. Musk announced after the flight that SpaceX will eventually equip Dragon with thrusters that would enable it to land on a planet's surface and lift off again.

This week's demonstration was SpaceX?s first test flight under NASA?s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which is aimed at boosting private sector development of vehicles to carry crew and cargo to the International Space Station.

SpaceX first teamed up with NASA under the COTS program in 2006, and the agreement requires the commercial provider to fly three demonstration flights with the Dragon spacecraft. Each flight will involve progressively more complex objectives, culminating in the third flight, which would see the Dragon capsule flying to and berthing with the space station.

Arriving ahead of schedule

With the success of SpaceX?s first demonstration flight, however, Musk and other SpaceX officials are considering advancing the COTS timeline by combining the mission objectives of the second and third planned flights.

Musk was confident that, with NASA's approval, the Dragon spacecraft could fly directly to the space station on its next test flight, which he imagined could occur as early as mid-2011. In the initial scheduling agreement, Musk said, NASA officials agreed to consider allowing SpaceX to fly Dragon to the space station on only its second flight if the first went according to plan.

"There's no meaningful difference in the complexity between the maneuvers we conducted today, and what we would conduct in going to the space station," Musk said. "Of course, we need to carefully examine the data from this mission and make sure it's all good, but I'm optimistic that the next flight will be to the space station."

But first, SpaceX would need to incorporate some extra elements into the Dragon capsule before it can fly to the station. This includes the addition of solar panels and improvements in redundancy for some onboard electronics, Musk said.

"There won't really be any changes to the structure or engines," he explained. "So, it's a relatively small delta between this vehicle and the one that would go to the station. That's why I feel really confident we'll be able to get there."

The decision will ultimately be made by NASA, but Alan Lindenmoyer, program manager of NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program, said SpaceX's demonstrable successes so far with its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule will be factored into the scheduling process.

"Certainly after today, we have increased confidence in SpaceX systems," Lindenmoyer said. "We have very specific objectives laid out for the next mission, as well as the third mission. It was always planned to be incremental and increasing in complexity.

"I would say, we will consider the proposals that SpaceX provides," he added. "We will assess the possibility and the feasibility and make sure it's technically possible with the equipment that's planned to be available in that timeframe. We'll certainly give it a good consideration."

Changing the game

The reverberations from this week's landmark test flight are still being felt throughout the spaceflight community. Early praise for the accomplishment poured in from those inside and outside the commercial sector.

The Space Frontier Foundation called the flight "historic," and said SpaceX's efforts are changing the game for the future of spaceflight.

"NASA is right to celebrate this achievement, as it further proves that their bet on commercial industry as their new partners is going to pay off," said William Watson, foundation executive director. "American companies can do amazing things when government offers them the chance to perform, rather than trying to compete with them."

NASA and SpaceX officials shared the same sentiment, with both parties agreeing that one of the main triumphs of Dragon's success was the demonstration of a flourishing partnership between the public and private sector.

"I talked about this being an experiment ? a new way of doing business with NASA and the private industry," Lindenmoyer said. "I would say, this is an indication that this experiment is working."

Furthermore, Musk hopes that NASA's continued collaboration with commercial providers will leave a lasting legacy for the agency and the future of the country's spaceflight program.

"One of the best analogies for the COTS program is the airmail program back in the day," Musk said. "It was a huge boost, and really got the American aviation industry going. It resulted in just an explosion of innovation and big improvements in technology and operational capability. I think the COTS program, historically, will be seen in a very similar light."

You can follow SPACE.com Staff Writer Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow.