Ten years ago on May 22, 2012, Elon Musk’s SpaceX made history. The company became the fourth entity, after the United States, Russia, and China, to launch a spacecraft into orbit and, on May 31 of that year, return it back to Earth. The achievement fundamentally altered the course of the next decade of space exploration.
That mission, the Dragon C2/3, was also the first commercial spacecraft to dock with another spacecraft in orbit — the International Space Station, in SpaceX’s case, on May 25, 2012. It was also the first commercial spaceship to return cargo back to Earth.
At the time, Musk reportedly stated in a press conference: “This mission heralds the dawn of a new era of space exploration, one in which there is a significant commercial space element.”
He was right. Dennis Stone, a commercial space executive at NASA who was directly involved, says that the mission “heralded a new age of commercial space services.”
These achievements cemented SpaceX’s place as NASA’s go-to private partner for launching crew and goods up to the International Space Station. But it also ignited a debate about public and private partnerships for space science that is still raging today.
Why NASA turned to SpaceX
Since 1981, NASA’s Space Shuttle Program was responsible for transporting humans and cargo to and from space — but in 2011, the Space Shuttle was going to retire. To get people and goods into space, NASA needed a new, cost-effective way to keep the ISS and other near-Earth space research and exploration operational without paying out for a shuttle itself.
“In preparation for the end of the Space Shuttle, NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services started in 2006 by investing SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation — now Northrop Grumman — capabilities to carry cargo to and from Low Earth Orbit,” explains Stone.
“Each company developed a launch vehicle and a cargo spacecraft that could rendezvous and berth with the International Space Station.”
Later, NASA assigned one of the first Commercial Resupply Services contracts to SpaceX. These cover individual flights funded by NASA for the delivery of cargo to the ISS using commercially operated spacecraft.
SpaceX was awarded $1.6 billion dollars for twelve of the company’s partially reusable cargo spacecraft: Dragon. Dragons are propelled into orbit using SpaceX’s flagship rocket, the Falcon 9.
Dragon takes flight
The first time Dragon took to the sky — in December 2010 — also marked the first COTS and CRS launches. During this first mission, Falcon 9’s second launch, Dragon entered orbit — a first for commercial spaceships. It was later recovered successfully after returning to Earth.
“Getting this far this fast has been a remarkable achievement,” said Phil McAlister, NASA’s acting director of Commercial Space Flight Development, at the time.
“No matter how this spaceflight goes, we are committed to this program.”
SpaceX’s next missions were given a combined designation: Dragon C2/3. The test flight’s namesake is itself a testament to the success of SpaceX and NASA’s partnerships to this point — originally conceived as two separate test flights, the agency decided to roll them into one mission.
Before they were rolled into one, SpaceX’s Dragon C2 was first supposed to practice the movements and communications for an eventual rendezvous with the ISS. The space capsule would then return to Earth from orbit — hopefully, in one piece. The second mission, Dragon C3, was to test whether Dragon could dock to the ISS as planned.
Between July and December of 2011, NASA cut to the chase and approved Dragon C2/3.
The mission “demonstrated a new paradigm to invest in commercial capabilities that could be shared by government and private-sector customers,” Stone says.
Then, after a series of delays, the Dragon C2/3 finally launched on May 22, 2012. It berthed at the ISS on May 25, 2012 — making it the first commercial ship to dock with another ship in space.
“This has not only saved NASA money but has stimulated development of a robust commercial space industry in the U.S. It was truly a great moment for space,” Stone adds. (Stone notes that “a few days ago, Boeing successfully demonstrated that it could reach ISS with its crew spacecraft, and thus will join SpaceX in providing commercial crew services to and from ISS.”)
NASA’s commercial future
The mission was a resounding success. A 2017 cost assessment by NASA analyst Edgar Zapata states unequivocally: “The COTS development and later the operational Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) are significant advances in affordability by any measure.”
To understand why it was so much more affordable to contract out flights to SpaceX, it is worth considering a separate analysis by NASA engineer Harry Jones done in 2018. It suggests the cost of NASA’s Space Shuttle was exorbitant — launching one kilogram of material into space cost $54,500, according to Jones’ estimates. SpaceX reduced that number to $2,720 per kilogram using the Falcon 9.
Both analyses go on to assert that as NASA takes on more missions to deep space, cost reductions will prove invaluable because of the increased need for space infrastructure. But in turn, the commercial sector appears to equally be in need of government support — or, at least, Elon Musk made it seem that way following the 2012 launch.
“I would like to start off by saying what tremendous honor it has been to work with NASA,” Musk reportedly said during a press conference after the flights featured on the National Space Society website.
“And to acknowledge the fact that we could not have started SpaceX, nor could we have reached this point without the help of NASA.”
SpaceX competes for dominance
But the involvement of commercial entities like SpaceX in helping NASA achieve its science goals has been met with some resistance. Russia used to be the primary source of transport for astronauts to the ISS — and they weren’t happy about the lost business. NASA used Russia’s Soyuz spaceships at a cost of $86 million per seat, according to a 2020 Forbes report.
At the time, Keith Cowing (a former NASA employee and the editor of the American space blog NASA Watch) suspected Russia wanted to claim a monopoly on space transport with their Soyuz spaceships.
Regardless of the motivation for Russia’s hesitance over SpaceX and NASA working together, the Dragon C2/3’s success laid the groundwork for a rapid expansion in commercial space technology.
Initially conceived as an unmanned capsule, Dragon capsules are now crewed and are increasingly cost-effective, competing with Russia’s Soyuz as the primary means of transport for astronauts to the ISS. According to one report, the cost of an entire Dragon spaceship launch is $55 million. To date, there have been 23 Dragon launches.
Now, ten years after Dragon C2/3’s fateful launch, the partnership between NASA and commercial companies is ramping up. In the same press conference following the launch of Dragon C2/3, Musk suggested the mission was the beginning of an era of accelerating technological advancements.
“It is like the advent of the Internet in the mid-1990s when commercial companies entered what was originally a government endeavor,” he reportedly said.
“That move dramatically accelerated the pace of advancement and made the Internet accessible to the mass market. I think we’re at a similar inflection point for space. I hope and I believe that this mission will be historic in marking that turning point towards a rapid advancement in space transportation technology.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Dragon docked to the ISS on May 24 — it achieved this feat on May 25. Further details have also been added to clarify the initial Dragon test flight.