Great news, space enthusiasts: Dragon will be flying on Feb. 7, 2012. What's Dragon? It's a capsule that will be flown to the International Space Station (ISS). And if all goes well, Dragon and its Falcon 9 launch vehicle will serve as the new replacement for the 30-year-old space shuttle, which was retired in July.
When we say "private," what we mean is "not public," that is, not government-based. SpaceX, the space transportation company that developed Dragon, won a $1.6 billion contract as part of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) project, which would bring non-government vehicles to the International Space Station.
(Previously, the only craft that have made its way to the International Space Station are the United States' former Space Shuttle; the Japanese vehicle, H-II Transfer Vehicle; Russia's Soyuz, and the European Space Agency's ATV.)
In fact, SpaceX isn't the only winner of NASA funding. Orbital Sciences earned $1.9 billion from COTS. Its Cygnus spacecraft was due to launch in late 2010, but that date has been postponed.
According to SpaceX's website,
Dragon is a free-flying, reusable spacecraft being developed by SpaceX under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Initiated internally by SpaceX in 2005, the Dragon spacecraft is made up of a pressurized capsule and unpressurized trunk used for Earth to LEO transport of pressurized cargo, unpressurized cargo, and/or crew members.
Note the "and/or crew members." Dragon's first flight will be unmanned.
But according to Wired,
SpaceX is one of several private firms that are vying to take over Nasa's supply runs and astronaut transport to the ISS following the discontinuation of the Shuttle programme earlier this year. The US is currently having to buy seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft, so it is looking towards using SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation for future trips.
In other words, private industry will be taking passengers. And with so few astronauts admitted to NASA and other government spaceflight programs, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences may look to paying passengers to help with their bottom line.
It looks like there's going to be a race to see which business can send unmanned vehicles to the ISS. The winner? The first business that can successfully fly manned vehicles, of course.