Arriving a bit ahead of schedule, the first commercial supply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) is now half-way through its mission objectives. The SpaceX (News - Alert) Dragon spacecraft is now berthed to the space station with the hatch open and the astronauts starting to unload supplies. A running joke is that the station crew wants to unload the experiment freezer first to get to the ice cream loaded inside.
Launched on the evening of October 7, the Dragon spacecraft ended up beating timeline estimates for being grappled by the space station arm and then berthed to a docking point. Expedition 33 crew member Akihido Hoshide successfully captured Dragon at 6:56 p.m. ET on October 10, 2012, then moved and secured to the to the Harmony module port. The hatch was opened at 1:40 p.m. ET later in the day. Initial estimates captured it happening between 7:00 and 7:30 a.m. ET with hatch opening not happening until tomorrow, October 11.
Dragon brought up 882 pounds of crew supplies, science research materials and hardware, including the GLACIER freezer. For the trip up, the freezer was loaded with Blue Bonnet ice cream (Vanilla, with chocolate swirl) as a crew "bonus food item."
The SpaceX capsule is scheduled to spend 18 days attached to the station. On its return trip on October 28, the capsule will be filled with 1,672 pounds of cargo for return to Earth, including the results of science experiments and station hardware. SpaceX is the only system out of a variety of Russian, Japanese, European and U.S. commercial spacecraft designed to return large amounts of cargo back to Earth in the post-Shuttle era.
This is the first of SpaceX's 12 contracted flights under NASA's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract and the second successful rendezvous and berthing of a commercial spacecraft with ISS. Under the contract, SpaceX has to deliver up to 20 metric tons of cargo, as well as provide "downmass" services back to Earth.
Attention now turns to Orbital Sciences (News - Alert) Corporation, the second CRS contractor. Under the COTS R&D demonstration program, Orbital has to demonstrate its Antares rocket in a test flight later this year. A COTS demonstration mission to the ISS for its Cygnus cargo freighter is penciled in for the first quarter of 2013. If both missions are successful, Orbital will then be ready to deliver its eight contracted cargo runs to ISS under CRS.
Edited by Brooke Neuman