On Saturday, a privately built spacecraft, the SpaceX Dragon, will launch from Cape Canaveral using another privately developed launch vehicle called the Falcon, for an historic trip to the International Space Station. It is part of a series of demonstration flights that NASA has signed off on to show that a private company can not only resupply the ISS, but eventually fly astronauts to the space station and bring them back to earth.
It's almost like the lead-up to Apollo, in my mind," said Mike Horkachuck, NASA's project executive for SpaceX. "You had Mercury, then you had Gemini, and eventually you had Apollo.
"This would be similar in the sense that we're not going to the moon or anything as spectacular as that, but we are in the beginnings of commercializing space," Horkachuck added. "This may be the Mercury equivalent to eventually flying crew and then eventually leading to, in the long run, passenger travel in space."
Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, has been working under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program (COTS) for the past six years to design, test and fly new cargo vehicles suitable for travel to the ISS.
Now that the United States Space Shuttle has ended, NASA is looking to commercial companies to take over that service.
In late 2010, SpaceX completed a test flight proving that it could launch, orbit and recover its 18-foot-tall Dragon spacecraft using its Falcon 9 rocket.
Now, this upcoming mission -- currently scheduled for liftoff at 4:55 a.m. EDT on May 19 -- is designed to show that Dragon can rendezvous and berth with the International Space Station, where plans call for it to remain for about 18 days.
If NASA had started its COTS program when it was first proposed back in the 90's, we would not have to be hitching a ride with the Russians today to the ISS. A fleet of manned spacecraft would be competing for the contracts to resupply the space station, no doubt lowering the cost even further.
This kind of cooperation with commercial space ventures will eventually pay huge dividends as other companies enter the lucrative market. NASA is paying SpaceX $1.6 billion for 12 missions to the ISS - proof that there's plenty of business for everyone.