by Gene Turnbow
All eyes have been on the now-retired fleet of NASA space shuttles, most recently on the arrival of the Enterprise in New York City as previously reported on Krypton Radio. However, while we were all looking at that and wondering what we could possibly be replacing them with, a company called SpaceX has been quietly and relatively without fanfare, solving the problem.
What you’re looking at is the first privately constructed orbital vehicle capable of carrying astronauts and supplies into space for extended missions. It’s fully capable of docking with the International Space Station using an automatic docking sequence, and has a manual override in case that doesn’t work and they need an actual human pilot to make the final approach. The photograph doesn’t really give a good impression of its size – that cylindrical section just behind the nose cone is big enough to hold up to seven crew members plus their life support gear and all the propellant they’ll need for the attitude thrusters once they’re in orbit. Alternatively, the ship can use a cargo module in that position instead, and they can pack it with up to about 7.5 tons of cargo going up, and it can hold about half that for the return trip (we’re guessing it’s because rockets are a lot stronger than parachutes – the Dragon is designed to splash down in the ocean like other American capsules have in the past).
They test flew the thing in December of 2010 atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and achieved a perfect orbital insertion and even restarted the second stage engines as one of the tests. That marked the first time a private company had ever achieved such a thing. Normally these sorts of projects are something countries do, not private companies.
For now, SpaceX has to use the facilities at Cape Canaveral, since efforts to build a spaceport in Texas have thus far been stymied by local politicians who don’t seem to understand the importance of bringing commercial space aeronautics to the state as a permanent part of the local economy. The Dragon is currently scheduled May 19 launch for its first voyage to the International Space Station, with a backup date of May 22 in case things don’t go well. Launch of the Falcon 9 rocket on May 19 would occur at approximately 4:55 a.m. EDT (0855 GMT).
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