SpaceX is targeting early November for its second launch of the Falcon 9 rocket and the first operational Dragon spacecraft. It will be the first launch demonstration under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to develop and demonstrate commercial space transportation options.
The four hour demonstration mission will launch from Cape Canaveral and is designed to put the Dragon spacecraft into orbit. From there, the craft make multiple, probably 4 or so, orbits, as SpaceX (News - Alert) demonstrates operational communications, navigation, maneuvering and reentry. If all goes as planned, Dragon should return to Earth for a Pacific Ocean splashdown off the cost of Southern California.
High hopes rest on the Dragon capsule. SpaceX is offering an unmanned version for resupply of the International Space Station (ISS) and the reentry capability to bring back down experiments and equipment is something only the manned Soyuz capsule can do on a much more limited basis. A "down-mass" capability would also put Dragon ahead of the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV); ESA is considering a re-entry capability for the ATV for cargo return and, like SpaceX, develop a version for crew transport to the ISS.
A free-flying version of Dragon, called DragonLab, is also being promoted by SpaceX for in-space technology demonstrations and scientific instrument testing. Two DragonLab missions are on SpaceX's manifest for 2012 and 2013.
Under the NASA COTS contract, two more Dragon flights are scheduled in 2011. The first one would be a five day flight with a fly-by of the ISS to demonstrate the ISS crew can monitor and control Dragon for docking while the second flight would be a full-up cargo delivery mission capped by docking to the ISS. Presuming all goes well, SpaceX would provide up to 12 NASA resupply flights to ISS between 2011 to 2015.
Dragon is capable of delivering up to 6,000 kilograms of payload to LEO -- that's a lot of experiments -- and return with up to 3,000 kilograms of payload down-mass. A future evolution of Dragon will be designed for ground landings rather than splashdown.
In a crewed configuration, Dragon would support up to seven passengers. SpaceX hopes to win business to deliver crew up to the ISS, as well as the growing world of commercial space station ventures. The company is scheduled to launch a module for Bigelow Aerospace in 2014, so delivering passengers would be the next step. In addition, there's talk from Russia about launching a commercial space station for tourists and research.Doug Mohney is a contributing editor for TMCnet and a 20-year veteran of the ICT space. To read more of his articles, please visit columnist page.
Edited by Jaclyn Allard