CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – A privately built rocket lit up the night sky over Florida Sunday (Oct. 7) to kick off the first-ever cargo delivery trip to the International Space Station by a robotic, American-made spacecraft.
The unmanned Dragon space capsule, built by the commercial spaceflight firm SpaceX, roared into space atop the company’s Falcon 9 rocket from a launch pad here at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, beginning a three-day flight to the space station. Liftoff occurred at 8:35 p.m. EDT (0035 Monday GMT). This is just the first mission, but you could say it’s the most important one, because it’s the first time the craft has been used to deliver cargo to the orbiting science platform. Each flight costs NASA a bit under $1.6 billion. This flight, being the first mission, is dubbed SpaceX CRS-1 and is expected to arrive at the orbiting lab on Wednesday morning (Oct. 10). The CRS in the flight designation stands for “Commercial Resupply Services”, essentially identifying it as a cargo ship.
NASA space station program manager Mike Suffredini said Dragon’s ability to launch supplies to the station and return cargo back to Earth is a cornerstone of boosting scientific research on the orbiting laboratory, as well as its day-to-day maintenance. “Not to be overdramatic, but it’s critical to the International Space Station,” Suffredini said during the countdown to launch.
Sunday night’s launch was nearly flawless. One of the Falcon 9 rocket nine engines apparently shut down unexpectedly during the ascent – in this video you might see bits of something in the rocket flare, an indication that something didn’t go quite right – but the booster’s eight other engines compensated for the glitch and delivered the Dragon spacecraft into its intended orbit. It’s designed to do exactly that, so distributing the responsibility for safe delivery across several engines was all part of the plan.
The launch of the Dragon spacecraft will be the first of 12 contracted flights by SpaceX to resupply the space station and marks the second trip by a Dragon to the station, following a successful demonstration mission in May. SpaceX services under the CRS contract will restore an American capability to deliver and return significant amounts of cargo, including science experiments, to the orbiting laboratory — a feat not achievable since the retirement of the space shuttle.
The Dragon was filled with about 1,000 pounds of supplies. This includes critical materials to support the 166 investigations planned for the station’s Expedition 33 crew, including 63 new investigations. The Dragon will return about 734 pounds of scientific materials, including results from human research, biotechnology, materials and educational experiments, as well as about 504 pounds of space station hardware.
Materials being launched on Dragon will support experiments in plant cell biology, human biotechnology and various materials technology demonstrations, among others. One experiment, called Micro 6, will examine the effects of microgravity on the opportunistic yeast Candida albicans, which is present on all humans. Another experiment, called Resist Tubule, will evaluate how microgravity affects the growth of cell walls in a plant called Arabidopsis. About 50 percent of the energy expended by terrestrial-bound plants is dedicated to structural support to overcome gravity. Understanding how the genes that control this energy expenditure operate in microgravity could have implications for future genetically modified plants and food supply. Both Micro 6 and Resist Tubule will return with the Dragon at the end of its mission.
Expedition 33 Commander Sunita Williams of NASA and Aki Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency will use a robot arm to grapple the Dragon following its rendezvous with the station on Wednesday, Oct. 10. They will attach the Dragon to the Earth-facing port of the station’s Harmony module for a few weeks while crew members unload cargo and load experiment samples for return to Earth.
Dragon is scheduled to return in late October for a parachute-assisted splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of southern California.
While NASA works with U.S. industry partners to develop commercial spaceflight capabilities, the agency also is developing the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System (SLS), a crew capsule and heavy-lift rocket to provide an entirely new capability for human exploration. Designed to be flexible for launching spacecraft for crew and cargo missions, SLS and Orion will expand human presence beyond low Earth orbit and enable new missions of exploration across the solar system.
SpaceX plans to have the Dragon capsule design upgraded to carry up to seven human passengers by 2015. This is important because currently, the only way American astronauts can get to and from the ISS is aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft which can only hold three people – and one of those has to be a Russian pilot. The remaining two seats costs the U.S. about $50 million each for passage.
For information about the International Space Station, research in low Earth orbit, NASA’s commercial space programs and the future of American spaceflight, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/exploration
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- For more information about SpaceX, visit: http://www.spacex.com
- For NASA TV downlink, schedule and streaming video information, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/ntv