SpaceX Dragon Completes Historic Arrival On Space Station
Only four entities previously had the capability to send a spacecraft to the orbiting outpost: the United States, Russia, Japan and Europe.
The test flight is part of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, an effort aimed to have the U.S. private sector take over the role of transferring cargo to and from the space station and other low-Earth orbit destinations, while the agency focuses on building new spacecraft that will eventually take astronauts deeper into space. Since the retirement of the space shuttle program last July, NASA lacks a capability to transfer crew and cargo to and from the space station, and therefore has been solely dependent on foreign-supplied vehicles.
Tuesday, Day One: Falcon 9, carrying cargo-filled Dragon, blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., at 12:44 a.m. PDT (3:44 a.m. local time).
“It was like winning the Super Bowl,” said Elon Musk, SpaceX founder-chief executive officer-and chief technology officer, during a post-launching news conference at company headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif.
NASA head Charlie Bolden, at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, also announced, “Today marks the beginning of a new era in exploration.”
But the agency and firm both acknowledged much work lies ahead.
For the fledgling industry and supporters, the launching was a grand entrance—their cause was moving forward, their potential on display.
“The American dream of space exploration is alive and well,” said Mark Sirangelo, chairman of Sierra Nevada Corporation Space Systems and former chairman of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, in a statement, "and the commercial space industry is working hard.”
Wednesday, Day Two: No slumber for Dragon yet. It continued to chase the space station. Among other milestones, the capsule demonstrated by now it could float freely in orbit, and a major GPS proved functional.
Thursday, Day Three: Dragon performed a series of maneuvers near the space station, including a fly-under that brought it roughly 1.5 miles below the space station. The capsule also proved it could establish a communications link with the orbiting outpost.
“Today went very, very close for how we trained it,” said NASA Flight Director Holly Ridings, during a mission update briefing from Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Friday, Day Four: The agency permitted Dragon to attempt to berth. It was grappled by the space station's robotic arm. At 9:02 a.m. the capsule successfully attached to the space station.
“There's so much that could have gone wrong but went right,” said Musk, during a post-berthing press conference in Hawthorne. “It's just a great day for the country and for the world.”
“We love you, Elon!” shouted his audience of SpaceX employees, a mix of youth and old hands.
“I love you too!” Musk shouted back, donning a boyish grin as the crowd responded with “Elon, Elon, Elon!”
Musk high-fived Alan Lindenmoyer, COTS program manager, who sat beside him.
Congressional members across the country and other parties also announced their congratulations.
“We need reliable cargo transportation,” said House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Ranking Member Jerry Costello (D-IL). “Today’s milestone by SpaceX and NASA gives me confidence that such a capability is achievable.”
“That is exactly what the President had in mind when he laid out a fresh course for NASA,” said John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “It's essential we maintain such competition and fully support this burgeoning and capable industry to get U.S. astronauts back on American launch vehicles as soon as possible.”
Space station crew members also received a call from Bolden. "You made history today," he told them, "and have firmly locked into place the future direction of America's space program."
Saturday, Day Five: Dragon smells like a “brand new car,” said American Don Pettit, shortly after opening the hatch at 2:53 a.m. He and Russian Oleg Kononenko entered the capsule to conduct initial inspections. American Joe Acaba; Russians Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin; and Dutch André Kuipers comprise the remainder of the crew.
Starting Monday, the astronauts will start unloading more than 1,000 pounds of cargo before refilling the vehicle with more than 1,400 pounds of cargo that will return to Earth.
Dragon is scheduled to detach from the complex and land in the Pacific on Thursday.
If the mission is an overall success, the company said it can begin routine cargo delivery missions to and from the space station later this year, as part of a 2008 contract signed with NASA for a minimum of 12 flights. SpaceX is also a participant in NASA's ongoing efforts to create a commercial crew-carrying capability.
Orbital Sciences Corporation is NASA's other COTS partner. The company is expected to conduct its demonstration mission to the space station later this year.