Q&A: DIY Spacecraft Builder on Historic SpaceX Launch

This is the fourth in a series of Wired Q&As with spaceflight experts leading up to SpaceX’s launch. You can read the first, second and third parts.

We may be at the dawn of a new, private era in space.

In the near future, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket will soon lift off, delivering the Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station. Until now, only the U.S., Russia, Japan, and the European Union have accomplished such a goal. If SpaceX succeeds, it will become the first private company to do so.

This week, Wired interviews experts in the spaceflight community to discuss the ways this historic launch will impact NASA and mankind’s presence in space. Is it a giant leap, or just a baby step?

Today we have Kristian von Bengston, co-founder of Copenhagen Suborbitals, a former NASA contractor and author of  Rocket Shop on Wired Science Blogs. He is helping design, build and test a not-for-profit suborbital spacecraft system that will launch people more than 60 miles above the Earth.

Wired: Will this launch be a big game changer for how spaceflight is done?

Kristian Von Bengston: Yes, this launch will be a game changer. SpaceX has been leading the way for many years for doing remarkably fast and effective work.

As much as I love the work of SpaceX and find great inspiration there, I also remember that they are working next to a slow and government-tormented scene. NASA could easily have been way ahead, leaving SpaceX with less credit and fame, if they have been given the go-ahead by the government and the dedicated financing by the U.S. Congress.

This docking with the ISS moves the private space scene away from “only” launching rockets and space capsules to actually performing with government missions and, eventually I think, taking over. A SpaceX success could shift the power and domain even more than one would expect for the future.

Wired: How do you think this will this impact NASA?

Von Bengston: There will be good and bad impacts on NASA. I’m sure many at NASA fear this launch will remove the last hope of NASA ever doing manned spaceflight again, if the U.S. government decides to go the SpaceX-way from here.

But if NASA embraces this new manned launch capability, everyone wins. SpaceX could really save the U.S. during this final hour. The government hasn’t been able to create a continuous path into space for people.

Wired: How much closer does this bring us to a future where manned spaceflight is cheap and quick?

Von Bengston: I’m not so sure. The sad thing is that everyone has gotten used to very long and complex development times at NASA over the last few decades. Suddenly SpaceX seems to be so much faster. But don’t forget that NASA got all the way to the moon in less than a decade.

What seems to be a slow pace at NASA is really just bad government work. Since SpaceX cuts most of the red tape they can certainly work faster, but it’s not remarkable if you look into the history 50 or 60 years ago. There is no doubt that SpaceX does things much cheaper, so in that sense this step is a step towards cheaper manned spaceflight.

Wired: What happens if it doesn’t work?

Von Bengston: Depends on the outcome. SpaceX could see a failed launch or a failed [low-Earth orbit] injection. These are typical kinds of things that can happen when you mess around with spaceflight.

Such failures would certainly put things on hold for another attempt to get anywhere near the ISS. If we see some kind of failure or catastrophe related to the ISS caused by SpaceX, it could perhaps be a final blow for such launches in the future — leaving smiles on the faces of all nay-sayers and old Apollo astronauts who apparently see SpaceX as their enemy.

Personally, I have no doubt that SpaceX will succeed, and I send them all my best wishes.

Images: SpaceX/Roger Gilbertson [high resolution]