The Federal Aviation Administration’s decision last week to grant its first ever orbital re-entry license to Space Exploration Technologies Inc. is being called a show of support for commercial space travel.
Better known as SpaceX, the Hawthorne company needs the license to launch its Dragon shuttle into orbit next month.
Keith Volkert, chief executive of Satellite Consulting Inc., an aerospace consulting firm in Rolling Hills Estates, said granting the license is a big step for privately funded space enterprises.
“This is an indication that there really is cooperation and support from the federal government for these new ventures,” he said. “They could have gone the other way and made it difficult to get these licenses.”
The Dragon’s first launch Dec. 7 on SpaceX’s own Falcon 9 rocket will be a test run. But SpaceX has contracted with NASA to eventually use the Falcon 9 and Dragon to transport cargo to and from the International Space Station. The contract, worth $1.6 billion, will send unmanned SpaceX shuttles to the station 12 times in the next few years.
Kirstin Brost, a SpaceX spokeswoman, said that since the company developed the Dragon through a NASA-funded program, there was little doubt about receiving the license.
However, development of commercial space shuttles comes as the government has severely scaled back federal funding for space exploration, leading to some grumbling.
NASA plans to retire its fleet of manned space shuttles next year. In addition, President Obama recently canceled the costly Constellation program, which would have put American astronauts back on the moon. Thousands of NASA employees have been laid off.
SpaceX, which was founded by Tesla Motors’ Elon Musk in 2002, was the first commercial company to launch a rocket capable of putting humans in space when the Falcon 9 lifted off in June. As the only company with a re-entry license, SpaceX hopes to lead the industry for commercial space flight.
“When we begin our supply flights, SpaceX will be the only company that will be able to take cargo up and bring things back,” Brost said.
The Dragon is equipped to carry humans, but she said SpaceX won’t consider manning it for several years.
Volkert said that sending a manned shuttle to the International Space Station will be the true measure of success for commercial space companies.
“It’s years away but it’s the ultimate goal,” he said. “The question is whether non-NASA entities can take over the work that NASA’s been doing.”
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