WASHINGTON — The first private spaceship is on its way to the International Space Station.
Some questions and answers about the cargo mission by Space Exploration Technologies, known as SpaceX:
Q: If this is just supplies and no astronauts, why is this launch such a big deal?
A: It’s not the ship or what’s in it that makes this important. It’s who is behind it. Until now, going to and from the space station has been the job of governments, big ones at that. This is a privately built and run spaceship that is loaded with food, clothing and equipment for the test run.
Q: What’s next in this space trip?
A: The Dragon capsule is in orbit after its launch on top a Falcon 9 rocket. When it gets close to the space station Thursday, it will do some maneuvers to show NASA that it can safely dock with the multibillion-dollar giant orbital complex. If NASA gives the OK, the capsule will linkup with the space station on Friday.
Q: Is this capsule different from other types of cargo-hauling spacecraft?
A: This is the only one designed to return to Earth and that can be reused. After Dragon is unloaded, it will be packed up for the return trip, landing in the Pacific Ocean. Supply ships now are loaded with garbage and burn up on re-entry. Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft ferry three station residents at a time; the Dragon capsule can be refigured to eventually take seven people.
Q: Has NASA stopped flying to the space station?
A: To build new rockets to eventually send people farther into space, NASA has stopped — for now — launching its own spacecraft to the space station. So it is paying Russia $63 million a seat to taxi astronauts to the space station, and hired private companies like SpaceX to make deliveries. SpaceX promises cheaper rides when it starts carrying people.
Q: When will these new private spacecraft take astronauts into space?
A: There are several companies vying for the job, all with different timetables. Many haven’t finished building test rockets. SpaceX’s mastermind, Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal, is aiming to launch a crew by 2015; other firms are targeting 2016 or 2017. A good rule of thumb in the rocket business — few early flights go even close to schedule.
Q: Will others be able to fly in space or just astronauts?
A: Private space companies are counting on real people as paying customers in space tourism eventually, but it won’t be cheap. Still, experts say commercial space firms probably are the only way everyday people will get to space.