The first private cargo ship successfully blasted off to the International Space Station from Cape Canaveral on 22 May 2012 at 03:44 local Florida time. Space X’s Dragon capsule is to dock with the Station on 25 May.
A successful blast-off for SpaceX’s Falcon 9, topped by the first Dragon capsule intended to dock with the International Space Station. Credit: NASA
NASA no longer has any vehicles for going up to the International Space Station, whether for human space flights or for transporting freight. Both these functions were fulfilled by the space shuttles that were retired last year. Therefore, the only spaceship capable of carrying passengers to the ISS is the Russian Soyuz, although there are three types of freighters: the Russian Progress, the European ATV and the Japanese HTV.
A much awaited success The American Space Agency has been running a programme dubbed COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) through which it supports private initiatives since 2006. NASA, in fact, pays sums of money to companies that reach specific technological steps with their sights set on the signing of a contract for several cargo flights to the ISS. The company SpaceX has, therefore, met NASA’s requirements and has developed the Falcon 9 launch vehicle which is capable of placing the Dragon capsule, tasked with carrying freight to the orbital complex, in orbit. On Tuesday 22 May, a decisive millstone was passed with the successful lift-off of the mission dubbed COTS Demo 2, Demo for demonstration obviously! It is with this flight that SpaceX is to prove that it can safely service the ISS. Hence, the Falcon 9 launcher blasted off at 03:44 (local time) from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station which adjoins the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Ten minutes later, the Dragon capsule (unmanned and automatic) was released from the second stage and extended its solar array. The video of the lift-off can be seen below.
This success is much awaited as, in the event that the rest of the mission goes according to plan, it means that the United States will once again be independent as regards accessing the Station; at least, as far as freight is concerned (experiments, food supplies, etc.). It is also a success for Elon Musk, Space X’s founder, who made his fortune on the Internet and has shown a strong desire to change the space industry by reducing the costs of going into orbit. Although criticised at the beginning for his first Falcon 1 launcher’s failures, the young entrepreneur stood his ground and based his company on NASA’s COTS challenge. The Falcon 9 launch vehicle (48 m tall and fitted with 9 Merlin engines on its first stage) went on to complete its maiden flight on 4 June 2010 and then to place a first Dragon capsule in orbit on 8 December of the same year (a capsule that was recovered after it re-entered the atmosphere and parachuted down into the sea). Although a little behind schedule, the plan to entrust the private sector with the servicing of the ISS today passed a decisive milestone. And on 25 May 2012, Dragon will approach the Station where American Donald Pettit and European André Kuipers will be at the controls of the Canadian robotic arm in order to grasp the cargo ship and dock it with the Harmony module.
The Dragon capsule as it approaches the ISS (an artist’s impression). This cargo ship will not be docking directly with the orbital complex. It is to approach the ISS such that it can be grasped by the Canadian robotic arm which will berth it to the Harmony module. Once the airlock is open, the astronauts will be able to go into the pressurised part of the Dragon in order to remove its freight. Credit: SpaceX/NASA
If this COTS Demo 2 mission goes according to plan, SpaceX will then land a contract worth 1.6 billion dollars for 12 cargo flights to the ISS. In the longer term, the Dragon capsule was designed such that it would be able to carry passengers into space. SpaceX could then provide transport for NASA’s astronauts. Another American company, Orbital, is also in the running. With its new launch vehicle Antares, it is counting on sending its cargo ship Cygnus to the ISS. Cygnus’ pressurised module was manufactured in Italy by Thales Alenia Space. Antares is due to attempt its maiden flight next August. Published on 22 May 2012
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