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SpaceX prepares for Falcon 9/Dragon spacecraft demonstration

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December 19, 2007

The Dragon spacecraft docks at the ISS
 Graphic: SpaceX.com

The Dragon spacecraft docks at the ISS Graphic: SpaceX.com

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December 20, 2007 SpaceX has completed the systems requirements review for the third Falcon 9/Dragon demonstration under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. In addition to carrying payloads of up to 27,500 kilograms to low Earth orbit, the Falcon 9 is the launch vehicle for the SpaceX Dragon, which will facilitate the delivery of cargo and up to seven people to and from the International Space Station.

NASA started the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program in 2006 in an effort to alleviate the galactic costs involved in developing the International Space Station. The program incorporated the private sector into the community of 16 nations already participating in the International Space Station effort, which has an estimated total cost of US$130 billion. The COTS program finances demonstrations from companies that provide spacecraft capable of docking with the International Space Station. NASA believes it will be necessary to seek corporate partnerships under the COTS program until at least 2015.

SpaceX was an early leader in the COTS program, and declared victor of Phase One in August 2006. The upcoming third demonstration of its spacecraft will involve the Falcon 9/Dragon approaching the ISS, holding its position, and being guided into a berthing port on the Harmony module by a robotic arm on the station.

The International Space Station draws on the resources of the U.S.A., Russia, Japan, Canada, Brazil, and the 11 nations of the European Space Agency. Assembly began in 1998, which was distant enough from the Cold War for the schematics to include elements of Russia’s long proposed, yet never constructed, Mir 2 as well as parts of the U.S.’s similarly fated "Space Station Freedom".

Although construction of the Space Station has not been completed, it is already the largest and most visited structure in the history of space flight. Construction is scheduled to be completed in 2010, and the Space Station is expected to run until 2016.

The prohibitive costs of building the International Space Station have already hampered plans for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer and the Centrifuge Accommodations Module, however the constant, long term presence of crew allows many experiments on human physiology to be conducted. Scientists are studying the effects of low gravity and space exposure on the processes of plants and animals, as well as kidney stones, circadian rhythm, evolution, development and growth, muscle atrophy, bone loss, and fluid shift. The unique atmosphere also presents a ready opportunity to study the physics of fluid and combustion.

Although it has been criticized for the immense cost and relatively narrow experiments, the International Space Station does not represent the “final frontier” in mankind’s space exploration efforts. In fact, the ultimate goal of the ISS is to pave the way for space exploration and habitation on a much grander scale. The technology developed to construct the craft, and the data collected about the human body, will allow governments and companies to accurately prepare for manned missions well beyond the Earth's orbit. "The International Space Station is now a stepping stone on the way," says NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, "rather than being the end of the line."

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