At around noon Eastern Time, on May 25 today, the commercial built and operated SpaceX (News - Alert) Dragon spacecraft was successfully berthed (attached) to the International Space Station. SpaceX joins a handful of nations and organizations that have successfully sent a spacecraft to rendezvous and connect to the orbiting space station. The event clears the way for SpaceX to start commercial cargo runs to ISS, provides a significant boost in the arm to other new entrants in the launch industry and adds a dose of "We've put up, now shut up" to industry and Capital Hill critics who have been continually complaining about NASA's privatization efforts for low earth orbit (LEO) operations.
"Today marks another critical step in the future of American spaceflight," NASA administrator, Charles Bolden, said in a prepared statement. "Now that a U.S. company has proven its ability to resupply the space station, it opens a new frontier for commercial opportunities in space -- and new job creation opportunities right here in the U.S. By handing off space station transportation to the private sector, NASA is freed up to carry out the really hard work of sending astronauts farther into the solar system than ever before. The Obama Administration has set us on an ambitious path forward and the NASA and SpaceX teams are proving they are up to the task."
It has been a long and hard road for both NASA and SpaceX. The company's efforts to conduct the COTS 2/3 flight have been delayed over a year primarily due to software issues with the Dragon spacecraft. However, the Dragon and the Falcon 9 rocket that put it into orbit appear to have performed "nominally" in this week's operations leading up to today's berthing with the ISS.
With today's successful berthing, SpaceX is now able to start providing NASA with regularly scheduled U.S.-flagged cargo flights to ISS. Under NASA's CRS (Commercial Resupply Service) contract, SpaceX is slated to provide 12 cargo flights to ISS to deliver supplies and experiments while providing the only significant "down mass" capability for experiments and equipment in the post-Shuttle era.
Previously, only four governments – the United States, Russia, Japan and the European Space Agency – had demonstrated the complex task of launch, rendezvous and berthing with ISS. China is also in the LEO rendezvous and docking/berthing club, but has not conducted operations with ISS due to political and technology maturity issues.
Tomorrow, May 26, the crew of ISS will open up the hatches of Dragon and memorialize the occasion with a brief ceremony -- no doubt followed with the opening of champagne at SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthhorn, California.
From May 26 through May 31, the crew will unload the token amount of non-critical supplies -- 1,014 pounds including non-critical experiments, food, clothing and technology -- in Dragon and fill it up with about 1,400 pounds of return cargo no longer needed on the station. On May 31, Dragon will be detached from the station and return to Earth for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, a couple hundred miles west of Southern California. A successful return to Earth and recovery of the capsule will mark the official close of the mission.
Success for this mission means SpaceX continues to reduce risk in its next big goal -- providing U.S.-flagged crew transportation services to ISS and other destinations. A series of successful cargo flights to ISS using the same Falcon 9 rocket and baseline Dragon capsule intended for manned operations would put it into an advantageous position to be a sole-source winner of the Commercial Crew program -- should Congress decided to force NASA to go in that direction.
SpaceX success is not a pleasant thought for aerospace industry and Capital Hill critics who have thrown a barrage of specious and illogical commentary at the whole idea of NASA using competitive practices and commercial methods to foster and ultimately buy manned transport to the space station.
Edited by Brooke Neuman