SpaceX launches commercial spacecraft on first flight to space station
Above: SpaceX's first space station-bound Dragon spacecraft, flying atop a Falcon 9 rocket, lifts off behind a high-fidelity mockup of the space shuttle, NASA's previous means of launching to the International Space Station. Credit: collectSPACE/Robert Z. Pearlman
May 22, 2012 — A fire-breathing Dragon set ablaze the early morning sky over Florida on Tuesday (May 22), creating a new and symbolic dawn for the future of U.S. spaceflight.
The Dragon, SpaceX's unmanned cargo capsule, launched on the company's first mission to fly to the International Space Station, a first for any private spacecraft and a trailblazer for NASA's burgeoning commercial orbital transportation system (COTS) program.
"The significance of this day cannot be overstated," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. "It is a great day for America. It is actually a great day for the world because there are people who thought that we [NASA] had gone away, and today says, 'No, we're not going away at all.'"
Lifting off atop SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the Dragon soared toward space at 3:44 a.m. EDT (0744 GMT). The launch marked SpaceX's third Falcon 9 launch and its second Dragon to enter orbit.
The successful liftoff came on SpaceX's second try, after a faulty valve forced an abort 0.5 seconds before launch on Saturday (May 19). The company replaced the valve later that day and then reset the vehicle for Tuesday's flight.
Characterized by NASA and SpaceX as a test flight, Dragon's milestone mission to the station combines objectives originally scheduled for two launches. SpaceX will need to first demonstrate that their vehicle can maneuver safely in the vicinity of the station before the space agency will give the go for astronauts to capture and berth the Dragon using the station's robotic arm.
"If successful, there is no question this is a historic flight," SpaceX's president Gwynne Shotwell told reporters during a press conference last week.
SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to provide a dozen Dragon cargo ship flights to the station, not counting this test flight. NASA is relying on private spacecraft like the Dragon and others now under development to provide robotic supply deliveries and, eventually, crewed flights to and from the orbiting outpost now that its space shuttle fleet is retired.
"Every launch into space is a thrilling event, but this one is especially exciting because it represents the potential of a new era in American spaceflight," John Holdren, President Barack Obama's science advisor, said in a statement released shortly after the launch.
Launch is just the start
Between leaving the ground and linking up with the station, SpaceX's Dragon will face several hurdles, each critical to moving forward with the flight — although not necessarily mission success.
"This is a test flight," Phil McAlister, NASA's director of commercial spaceflight development, said. "NASA views test flights primarily as learning opportunities. They don't fit very neatly into characterizations of success or failure."
Early in the mission, the Dragon will need to expose the sensors it will use to navigate near the station, and deploy its power-providing solar wings — both first time activities for the spacecraft. SpaceX's inaugural Dragon orbital test flight in December 2010 relied on batteries for its two orbits of the Earth before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.
Early Wednesday morning, the Dragon will fire its thrusters to perform a fly-under of the International Space Station, passing just 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers) below the orbiting complex. The maneuver will test the spacecraft's communication and navigation systems — including its ability to receive commands from the ground and the station — to set the stage for its attempt at berthing the next day.
During its re-rendezvous Thursday, the Dragon will approach the station in steps, giving NASA's Mission Control in Houston the opportunity to perform "go/no-go" calls before the spacecraft is directed to maneuver in closer. After demonstrating its ability to hold its position and retreat, Dragon will approach to 656 feet (200 meters), and then 98 feet (30 meters), and finally 32 feet (10 meters), its capture point.
NASA astronaut and Expedition 31 flight engineer Don Pettit will then take control of the station's 60-foot (18-meter) long robotic arm to reach out and grapple the Dragon. Pettit, with the help of fellow crew member and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Andre Kuipers, will guide Dragon to the bottom, Earth-facing side of the Harmony node, where it will be attached to the station.
If the rendezvous and Dragon testing runs long, Mission Control could elect to leave Dragon grappled to the station's arm overnight before berthing it on Friday.
The station's crew will spend 20 hours spread over the next week unloading the Dragon of its cargo. On this test flight, Dragon is transporting 1,014 pounds (460 kilograms) of supplies and will return 1,367 pounds (620 kilograms).
Dragon will spend about a week attached to the station, at which point the crew will use the robotic arm to detach the capsule from Harmony, maneuver it out to the 33 feet (10 meter) release point and then will ungrapple the spacecraft. Dragon will perform a series of engine burns that will place it on a trajectory to take it away from the vicinity of the station.
About four hours after the Dragon leaves the station on May 31, it will conduct its deorbit burn, which lasts about seven minutes. It takes about 30 minutes for the Dragon to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, about 250 miles (450 kilometers) off the coast from San Francisco, California.
If this flight proceeds as planned without problems, SpaceX expects to launch its first full cargo delivery to the space station later this year.
Above: The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket soars into space from Space Launch Complex-40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 3:44 a.m. EDT, carrying the Dragon capsule to orbit. Credit: NASA/Alan Ault
Above: Powered by nine Merlin engines, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket roars into space at 3:44 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex-40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: SpaceX