Phil Plait on historic SpaceX commercial spaceflight recovery

The space transport company SpaceX made history by launching a spacecraft, called Dragon, into orbit and recovering it safely, a feat only done before by space agencies of a few nations.

The space transport company SpaceX made history in late 2010 by launching a spacecraft, called Dragon, into orbit and recovering it safely, a feat only done before by space agencies of a few nations such as the U.S., Russia and China. We spoke with astronomer Phil Plait, who writes the Bad Astronomy blog for Discover Magazine, about the historic SpaceX flight.

Phil Plait: This was essentially, from what I can tell, a completely flawless flight, which is even more amazing considering that they were going to launch it, but there was an anomaly. One of their sensors went off and they aborted the launch. And then like two hours later, they fixed the problem, and launched. So the turnaround on even finding a problem is nothing, and they were able to get this thing off the ground. It was amazing.

Dr. Plait said that when the U.S. space shuttle retires in 2011, SpaceX and other commercial companies will take over its duties. The success of the SpaceX recovery mission, said Plait, could be a new chapter in human spaceflight, as more people reach space.

Phil Plait: In a few more years, SpaceX – and there are other companies who are looking to do this as well – are going to be able to put heavy payloads into orbit to be able to bring people into orbit, big satellites, pieces for new space station, colonies on the moon, astronauts to Mars and near-Earth asteroids. The science, the technology, and the social aspects of what we’re going to see in the next couple of decades, because of this flight, are difficult to predict. But I think this is going to be a new shift in the way that we perceive the Earth. And again, I think this is going to be very, very positive for us.

EarthSky asked Plait about the excitement stirred by the SpaceX flight.

Phil Plait: Well, it’s a commercial company. It’s not NASA, or the Russians, or another country. It’s not a national space program. Although NASA does fund SpaceX and they used NASA facilities to launch, for example, from Florida today. But it is a commercial company. From the square one, they were designed to build rockets and get them up to space, and that’s where they’re going.

Plait described what comes next after the SpaceX recovery.

Phil Plait: For SpaceX, this was a demo flight. The Dragon capsule was essentially empty. It had computers and such on it to relay telemetry back to the ground on how it was doing, but it was empty. It didn’t have equipment on it. It didn’t have people on it. The next thing is to do it again, to make sure that everything works. You want to be able to repeat this. But essentially for SpaceX, to be looking for the next few years, is to start servicing the space station, bringing astronauts up, bringing supplies up there, bringing people back.

EarthSky asked Plait what he thought was most important for people to know about the historic SpaceX flight.

Phil Plait: I’m not going to say this is whole new book of history – but it is a new chapter, in that this shows that a private company can actually go into space and do something that only governments could do just a few years ago. And that, in a few more years, SpaceX – and there are other companies who are looking to do this as well – are going to be able to put heavy payloads into orbit to be able to bring people into orbit, big satellites, pieces for new space station, colonies on the moon, astronauts to Mars and near-Earth asteroids. The science, the technology, and the social aspects of what we’re going to see in the next couple of decades, because of this flight, are difficult to predict. But I think this is going to be a new shift in the way that we perceive the Earth. And again, I think this is going to be very, very positive for us.

Jorge Salazar