Dragon sighting at the space station
Posted on Oct 23, 2012 in News
On the moonless night of Oct. 7, 2012, riding on its breath of fire and smoke that shone through the darkness, a dragon soared towards the heavens. Unlike the dragons of old, however, this dragon is not a creature of myths, but instead the creation of man. With this flight, a new era in spaceflight has begun.
Designed by SpaceX, a private space company, Dragon is the first privately built spacecraft to resupply the International Space Station. Though Sunday’s launch is not the first flight of the Dragon capsule, it is the first of the Commercial Resupply Services mission.
Dragon is the first American spacecraft to reach the International Space Station following the Space Shuttle’s last launch in July 2011. Under the Commercial Resupply Services contract, SpaceX and other private companies will ferry cargo to and from the International Space Station. The end of the Shuttle program had meant that NASA was unable to supply the space station. Dragon free NASA from the embarrassment of relying on Russian and European spacecraft to reach the space station.
Three days after liftoff, Dragon reached the International Space Station on Wednesday. After passing a series of checkpoints, Mission Control Houston cleared Dragon for the final approach to docking. Astronaut Akihiko Hoshide from Japan used the space station’s robotic arm, Canadarm2, to grapple and berth Dragon to the space station.
In this trip, Dragon hauled 1995 pounds of cargo, a mere fraction of its full capacity of more than 7,000 pounds, up to the space station. The cargo includes 260 pounds of food and clothing for the astronauts, amongst other supplies such as for experiments and computer hardware.
Over the next few weeks, Dragon will remain docked to the International Space Station as astronauts unpack the fresh supplies. These supplies will be replaced by completed experiments that had been building up in the space station. Russian Progress spacecraft currently supplying the space station are unable to ferry cargo back to Earth, as they are designed to burn up during re-entry. Dragon, on the other hand, will splash down in the Pacific, allowing cargo to be recovered.
Though it is currently carrying only cargo, the Dragon will one day also lift astronauts to space. The crew variant of the Dragon capsule, DragonRider, will have a capacity of 7 astronauts, a marked improvement over the 3-person Soyuz capsule. SpaceX hopes that it will soon be ferrying astronauts as well as cargo to the International Space Station.
This flight marks the beginning of commercial operations in space. No longer are government agencies the only ones capable of supplying and maintaining spacecraft in orbit. Other companies, such as Orbital Sciences, plan to join SpaceX in private missions to space.
As Dragon takes over ferrying cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station, NASA can now concentrate on the Orion spacecraft, which will take man back to the moon and then beyond. Meanwhile, private companies like SpaceX will slowly bring down the cost of going to space, making it just a little bit more close to home.