SpaceX Receives FAA License to Return Private Spaceships From Earth Orbit
This still from a SpaceX animation depicts an unmanned Dragon spacecraft re-entering Earth's atmosphere ahead of a planned splashdown in the ocean.
Credit: SpaceX.

Space Exploration Technologies, the California company called SpaceX for short, has received the first-ever commercial license to re-enter spaceships from Earth orbit.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees commercial space transportation, granted SpaceX the one-year license today (Nov. 22). Though the FAA has issued licenses for more than 200 commercial launches, this was the first time it sanctioned a re-entry operation.

The license will allow SpaceX to proceed with an important test of its Dragon space capsule and Falcon 9 rocket next month. A Falcon 9 is to carry a Dragon to low-Earth orbit, from where the capsule will re-enter the atmosphere. [Illustration of Dragon re-entering Earth's atmosphere.]

This will be the first attempt by a commercial company to recover a spacecraft from low-Earth orbit, SpaceX officials said. To date, only six nations or government agencies have done it: the United States, Russia, China, Japan, India and the European Space Agency.

The demonstration, which could take place as early as Dec. 7, is a key trial run for SpaceX. The company holds a contract under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to help resupply the International Space Station after the U.S. space shuttle fleet retires next year.

After the final shuttle mission, SpaceX will make at least 12 flights to carry cargo to and from the station, according to company officials.

NASA officials were happy to hear about the FAA decision.

"Congratulations to the SpaceX team for receiving the Federal Aviation Administration's first-ever commercial license to re-enter a spacecraft from Earth orbit," NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement. "The flight of Dragon will be an important step toward commercial cargo delivery to the International Space Station. NASA wishes SpaceX every success with the launch."

In June, SpaceX conducted a successful fight test of Falcon 9 with a qualification unit of the Dragon spacecraft — a simplified version — on board. The next three Falcon 9 missions will be to carry an operational Dragon cargo vessel in an increasingly complex series of demonstrations under the terms of the company's $278 million COTS deal.

Upon successful completion of the demo missions, SpaceX is to begin making regular cargo-delivery runs to the space station under a separate, fixed-price contract valued at $1.6 billion.

Both the Dragon and the Falcon 9 were designed to carry astronauts someday, SpaceX officials said.