updated 12/8/2010 10:19:09 AM ET 2010-12-08T15:19:09

Private companies have been launching satellites into space for decades, but this week a California-based firm wants to bring one back through the atmosphere -- flying over populated areas in the process -- as well.

The Federal Aviation Administration, charged with regulating the commercial spaceflight industry, says the company, Space Exploration Technologies, has met its safety standards, with an overall chance of casualties from launch and landing activities of its Dragon capsule at 30-in-1 million -- the same odds for similar NASA and military space operations, said Hank Price, spokesman for the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

"We're doing everything we can to make sure it's as safe as possible for the American public," Price told Discovery News.

SpaceX plans to launch its first Dragon capsule on a test flight for NASA as early as Wednesday. NASA wants to turn over cargo runs to the International Space Station to SpaceX and a second firm, Orbital Sciences Corp., beginning next year after the space shuttles are retired.

In addition to launch services contracts with both firms that total $3.5 billion, NASA is helping SpaceX and Orbital Sciences pay for the development and testing of its rockets and capsules. This week's test-flight is the first for either company.

SpaceX plans to put its Dragon capsule into an 186-mile high orbit (300 kilometers) that is inclined 34.5 degrees relative to the equator -- a path that flies over areas north of Los Angeles and Wilmington, N.C., both located at 34 degrees latitude.

After two orbits, during which it will test its steering thrusters and other systems, Dragon is to automatically fire its braking rockets to leave orbit and parachute into the Pacific Ocean about 500 miles off the west coast of Mexico.

SpaceX had to make some changes to convince the FAA that the government's initial assessment of the danger, pegged at a 47-in-1 million chance of casualties, was too grim.

Modifications include: altering Dragon's thermal shield so that if the capsule re-enters the atmosphere upside-down, it will burn up; extending Dragon's battery life so it can stay in orbit for up to six hours in case problems develop; and adding backup commanding capabilities from ground control stations.

"The process is a painstaking one," SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell told Discovery News. "It's not like they take our word for what we tell them. They go and do their own independent analysis."

NASA, which is keeping a close eye on the mission, says SpaceX is totally responsible for the capsule's re-entry. "They've got the FAA guidelines in the background that they have to adhere to," said NASA spokesman Josh Byerly.

During the launch, Air Force safety officers at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station have the ability to ignite the rocket's auto-destruct system in case it veers off path.

"We have calculated that (this mission) is as safe as it possibly can be with the technologies that exist today," Price said.

SpaceX had a successful debut flight of its Falcon 9 rocket in June. "We hope to hit the bulls-eye again," Shotwell said.

© 2012 Discovery Channel


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments