A top executive at SpaceX said Wednesday that the California-based rocket company hoped to launch U.S. astronauts into orbit as early as 2015 -- with the twist that these space-farers would be SpaceX employees and not NASA personnel.
The goal was announced during a NASA news conference held at Kennedy Space Center intended to broadly update the public on the agency's efforts to use commercial companies to ferry its astronauts to the International Space Station.
But the pronouncement by ex-NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman -- now a project manager with SpaceX -- stole the show, especially because SpaceX made history last year by becoming the first commercial company to blast an unmanned spacecraft to the station and return it safely to Earth.
"We are not selling tickets. Don't call our toll-free number," joked Reisman, who said the test flight would be part of the company's effort to convince NASA that its Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon capsules are safe enough to carry NASA crews.
He said the company, founded by Internet tycoon Elon Musk, had just begun "internal discussions" on whom SpaceX would send on the mission -- and deflected questions about whether he would be onboard.
"I did not come to SpaceX specifically ... with the intent of going back to space," said Reisman, a veteran of NASA station and space-shuttle missions.
But he said that no matter who flew for SpaceX, he would help ensure it was safe.
"What's important to me is that I can look myself in the mirror ... [and say] that the risk is acceptable for me to fly," he said.
The 2015 demonstration flight by SpaceX -- along with a similar mission planned by Boeing in 2016 for its new capsule -- are being encouraged by NASA as a precursor to launching agency astronauts.
"We want to know when you [commercial companies] are ready to fly your crew at your risk," said Ed Mango, manager of NASA's commercial-crew program.
SpaceX documents filed with NASA indicate that the company's first manned mission would be an "orbital-demonstration flight" that would stay in space at least three days. It would not dock with the space station.
NASA has had to hire commercial-rocket companies for transportation because of years of stop-and-start space policy.
When NASA retired the shuttle in 2011, it had no homegrown, human-rated spacecraft to replace it. So the agency has relied on Russia to ferry astronauts to and from the station -- an arrangement costing the U.S. roughly $1.5 billion during five years.
To fix that situation, NASA began a "space taxi" program that aimed to put NASA astronauts on commercial rockets by the end of the decade.
The effort is a continuation of an earlier NASA program to help commercial companies develop rockets and capsules to ferry cargo to the station. SpaceX began doing that work last year, including an October flight that delivered 882 pounds of supplies to the orbiting observatory; another cargo mission is scheduled for March, according to a NASA launch manifest.
But the October mission was not flawless. One of the rocket's nine engines failed about 79 seconds after takeoff -- though the Dragon capsule was still able to make it to the station.
Still, a joint investigative team of NASA and SpaceX experts was formed to look into it. Reisman said Wednesday that the team had found the problem's root cause, presented that data to top NASA officials and would make the information public soon.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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