Putting the SpaceX (test) launch into perspective

In less than 24 hours, technology and meteorology permitting, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will lift off from Cape Canaveral carrying a Dragon cargo spacecraft on a test flight to the International Space Station. If all goes well, it will berth with the station early next week, demonstrating its ability to transport cargo to the station.

This is a key demonstration for SpaceX and, by extension, the commercial spaceflight community, but is its importance being overemphasized? Much of the media coverage of the flight has called this a “milestone” for commercial space, among other similar language. That coverage is understandable, but it may unnecessarily raise the stakes for what is a test flight, one where things can go wrong. That runs the risk of creating the perception that if the mission doesn’t complete all of its milestones—such as maneuvering around but not berthing with the ISS—the mission will be seen as a failure.

“It’s such a high-profile launch that a failure could set not only the company back, but set NASA’s policy back and call it into question,” former astronaut Tom Jones told Fox News in an article titled, “Commercial space race at make-or-break moment with looming launch”. But should the stakes be that high?

“It’s a very ambitious mission. If they get even half of their mission objectives done successfully, that would still be an historic first,” said Jeff Greason, CEO of XCOR Aerospace, during a conference call with reporters Thursday organized by the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF). “Please remember that, succeed or fail, test flights are called test flights for a reason… They very rarely go perfectly.”

During the call, I asked Greason and the other participants, CSF president Michael Lopez-Alegria and NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver, how to manage expectations accordingly given that this is a test flight and things can go wrong. They tried to emphasize that this is a test flight, and even partial success should be treated as a major positive accomplishment for SpaceX and the industry.

“This is a combination of two test flights, and you can argue that if you got the objectives of the first test flight complete, that would be a win,” said Lopez-Alegria. That’s a reference to the fact that this mission is intended to combine the objectives of the second and third test flights in SpaceX’s original award from NASA. “Anything above that would be even better.”

He went on that achieving those objectives, such as safely moving around the station in a specific trajectory, are fairly technical, making it difficult for the public to easily judge success or failure. “Black-and-white judgments are going to be difficult, less visible for the public to perceive,” he said.

Garver acknowledged that how the public perceives the outcome of the mission will be different from the detailed technical analysis by NASA and SpaceX. “Success will be judged by the public,” Garver said. “We realize the characterization of it by NASA will be different than what the public decides.”

Greason added that SpaceX is attempting an ambitious mission, historically speaking. “The whole Gemini program had test objectives that, in essence, are all being condensed into this one mission,” he said. “If they get even halfway there, that’s still one for the books.”

Will those engineering nuances be appreciated by a public that may not understand the major challenges associated in flying a spacecraft in the vicinity of another and then, carefully and precisely approaching it? How understanding will the public be if Dragon achieves some, but not all, of its objectives? The more the mission is portrayed in terms of a “make-or-break” event for commercial space, the more eager those same people will seek to provide a black-and-white, success-or-failure judgment for its outcome, as inaccurate as that may be technically.

“One success does not prove a reliable capability, even if everything goes great,” Greason said, “and one failure or one setback doesn’t mean that the problems found won’t be fixed, either.”

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