When the SpaceX Falcon 9 successfully lifted off from Florida about 48 hours ago, placing the Dragon spacecraft into orbit, the celebratory remarks flowed. Members of Congress offered their best wishes, as did organizations representing both the emerging commercial spaceflight industry as well as the more traditional, mainstream aerospace industry. On Tuesday morning at the Global Space Exploration Conference in Washington, officials from several space agencies offered their congratulations. And SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted last night he got a special call as well—even if he almost missed it:
The President just called to say congrats. Caller ID was blocked, so at first I thought it was a telemarketer
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 24, 2012
Those congratulations are well deserved, of course, but perhaps a bit premature. SpaceX has already demonstrated its ability to place Dragon into orbit, doing it in its first COTS demonstration mission in December 2010. While the Dragon quickly moved beyond the capabilities demonstrated on that initial flight by deploying its solar panels (not used on its brief 2010 flight) and testing other systems, the real demonstration of Dragon starts early this morning when it approaches and flies around the ISS. If that goes well, it will closely approach and berth with the station on Friday morning. Those tests are arguably far more critical, and demanding, than launching the spacecraft.
If SpaceX is successful, though, the company will deserve congratulations far greater than anything it’s received so far.