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FAA issues first commercial re-entry license to SpaceX

Posted: November 22, 2010

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The Federal Aviation Administration granted SpaceX a commercial re-entry license Monday for next month's roundtrip test flight of the Dragon spacecraft, clearing a major regulatory hurdle before the first demo under NASA's commercial cargo development program.

A Dragon spacecraft undergoes a parachute test off the coast of California in August. Credit: Roger Gilbertson/SpaceX
It was the first re-entry license issued to a private firm by the FAA, which oversees commercial space activity and grants approval for corporate rocket launches and landings. The license is valid for one year from the date of issue, according to SpaceX.

SpaceX plans to launch the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule no earlier than Dec. 7, but the flight's timing depends on the conclusion of ground testing to verify the craft's readiness.

The scheduled Dec. 3 launch of the shuttle Discovery could also push back the SpaceX flight. One of the shuttle's two solid rocket booster recovery ships will be sent back into the Atlantic Ocean to attempt retrieval of the Falcon 9 first stage.

It takes about seven days to turn around one of the recovery ships between shuttle and Falcon 9 flights.

The FAA approved SpaceX's launch license application in October. The agency has issued licenses for more than 200 launches, according to an FAA statement.

The agency reviews public safety issues, environmental impacts, payloads, national security and foreign policy concerns, and appropriate insurance, the FAA statement said.

Next month's Dragon test flight is expected to last several hours, accomplishing between one and three orbits of Earth testing the spacecraft's propulsion, navigation, control and communications systems at an altitude of about 150 miles.

The Dragon will be programmed to fire its thrusters to return to Earth a few hours after launch, falling by parachute into an area cleared of air and sea traffic a few hundred miles off the coast of southern California.

"This will be the first attempt by a commercial company to recover a spacecraft re-entering from low Earth orbit," SpaceX said in a statement. "It is a feat performed by only 6 nations or governmental agencies: the United States, Russia, China, Japan, India, and the European Union."

The mission is the first demonstration under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, or COTS, program. SpaceX is developing the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft with federal and private funds to ferry supplies to and from the International Space Station after the shuttle's retirement.

NASA contracted for 12 cargo flights from SpaceX in a deal valued at $1.6 billion.

If the December flight goes well, SpaceX plans a second Dragon mission between April and June to prove the capsule's rendezvous sensors during a close approach fo the space station. The company wants to combine the second and third COTS demos and berth to the complex in the spring of 2011, but NASA is withholding approval of the change pending the outcome of next month's mission.