A new chapter has been written in the history of space exploration with the successful launch of the first commercial cargo flight to the International Space Station (ISS). The reusable unmanned freighter Dragon was lifted into orbit today at 8:35 PM EDT (October 8, 0135 GMT) by a Falcon 9 booster from the Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and is scheduled to rendezvous with the ISS on Tuesday. Carrying 905 kg (1,995 lbs) of cargo, this is the first of twelve contracted flights that Dragon is scheduled to make to the station.
Eleven minutes after launch, the Dragon entered Earth orbit and began the sequence to deploy its solar array and started testing its rendezvous sensors. During the next three days it will adjust its orbit to match that of the ISS and park itself within ten meters (32.8 ft) of the station. Then Expedition 33 crew member Akihiko Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will capture Dragon using one of the station's robotic arms and guide it to a docking port. It will then be unloaded by the crew and spend about three weeks docked with the station before returning to Earth.
The mission, officially known as CRS-1, is not the first visit made by Dragon to the ISS. Last May, a Dragon freighter made its first docking with the station, but that was part of a test to determine if the Dragon could be used as a cargo carrier. Now it’s returning under NASA’s US$1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract with Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX), which builds and operates the Dragon and the Falcon 9 booster. It is the first of at least 12 SpaceX missions to the ISS as part of the cargo resupply contract.
The previous mission only carried a token cargo, but this time Dragon was loaded with a full complement of operational supplies including food rations, a cryogenic freezer, general hardware, a biological experiment laboratory and other items. When it splashes down in the Pacific Ocean in a few weeks, it will carry back 905 kg (1,995 lbs) of returning experiments and samples. Unlike the ESA's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) or JAXA's H-II Transfer Vehicles, Dragon has a heat shield and is designed to re-enter the atmosphere safely instead of burning up. It is expected to return to Earth on October 28.
Named after Puff the Magic Dragon as an answer to critics who thought it was a pipe dream, the Dragon is a free-flying, reusable spacecraft that stands 4.4 m (14.4 ft) tall and is 3.66 m (12 ft) in diameter. Weighing 6,000 (13,228 lbs) at launch, it consists of a pressurized capsule and an unpressurized trunk that houses the craft’s solar power array. Attitude control is by 18 redundant Draco thrusters and on completing its mission, Dragon returns by parachute for a water recovery before refurbishment and reuse. SpaceX intends for the Dragon to be upgraded in the near future to make powered landings and eventually carry a crew.
The launch of Dragon isn't the only commercial space news. At NASA’s Wallops Island flight facility off the coast of Virginia another commercial spacecraft is preparing for flight. Orbital Science’s Cygnus spacecraft and Antares rocket have been rolled out for launch pad tests and are scheduled to make their first demonstration flight later this year.