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SpaceX aims for next milestone: carrying astronauts

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne has given NASA a proposal to be the first commercial firm to take people into outer space.

January 24, 2011|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times

After becoming the first private company ever to blast a spacecraft into Earth orbit and have it return intact last month, Hawthorne rocket maker Space Exploration Technologies Corp. is pushing toward its next big step.

The company known as SpaceX wants to be the first commercial firm to launch astronauts into outer space and has submitted a proposal to NASA.

SpaceX wants in on the potentially multibillion-dollar job of ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station after the space shuttle is retired this year. The company is already building rockets and capsules to deliver cargo to the station.

NASA's Commercial Crew Development program hopes to award about $200 million in seed money in March to companies to develop rockets and spacecraft for the next step in manned spaceflight after the shuttle. Several aerospace companies, including SpaceX and aerospace giant Boeing Co., have submitted proposals.

SpaceX's Dec. 8 launch of its Dragon spacecraft was a technological and financial feat, the likes of which had previously been accomplished by only the wealthiest of nations.

Although the Dragon was unmanned, it was designed to carry seven astronauts. On the day of the launch, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said: "If there had been people sitting in Dragon today, they would've had a nice ride."

But the 9,260-pound spacecraft still needs upgrades before an astronaut can strap in, Musk said last week.

"Upgrading Dragon capsules to carry astronauts won't be too difficult," he said. "The cargo version of the Dragon spacecraft will be capable of carrying crew with only three key modifications: a launch abort system, environmental controls and seats."

More than 1,000 engineers and technicians are employed at the company's sprawling production facility in Hawthorne — a former Boeing 747 assembly plant — where it builds rockets to launch satellites for telecommunications companies and foreign governments.

Musk, a 39-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneur who made a fortune when he sold online payment business PayPal Inc. in 2002, started SpaceX with the vision of developing and launching rockets and lifting payloads into space at a fraction of the cost of the current generation of spacecraft.

When the shuttle program is mothballed and before new space vehicles are astronaut-ready, the U.S. will have no way to travel to the International Space Station other than on a Russian Soyuz rocket. SpaceX hopes to win the right to develop those new space vehicles, Musk said. "SpaceX is prepared to meet this need."

william.hennigan@latimes.com

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