Dragon to rendezvous with the space station
Published: Thursday, May 24, 2012
Updated: Thursday, May 24, 2012 12:05
ORLANDO, Fla. — The first privately operated spacecraft to head for the International Space Station should be dancing with the flying laboratory by early Thursday morning as both fly around the Earth at 17,000 mph.
The Dragon space capsule, launched by SpaceX from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station early Tuesday morning, was set to come within 1.5 miles of the station as it orbits about 200 miles above Earth and then perform a series of test maneuvers.
SpaceX and NASA hope to open a new era of space transportation, in which private companies take over cargo — and, ultimately, crew – deliveries previously handled by the now-retired NASA space shuttle and by government-run spacecraft from Russia, Japan and Europe.
Thursday’s dance will test how well Dragon can be maneuvered by remote control, first by controllers at NASA Mission Control in Houston’s Johnson Space Center and then by astronauts on-board the space station.
The outcome is critical to getting NASA’s OK to actually dock with the space station. If Dragon passes all its tests today, docking — the capsule will come within 30 feet of the station so the shuttle’s remote arm can grab it and guide it into place — is scheduled for early Friday morning.
“There’s still a thousand things that need to go right,” said NASA’s commercial crew and cargo manager Alan Lindenmoyer.
If things go wrong, it could be disastrous. Although there is no gravity in low Earth orbit, Dragon has a mass of 7,300 pounds. Any collision, slow-motion or otherwise, would be like the delicate, $100-billion station getting broadsided by a Ford F-250 pickup truck.
Neither NASA nor SpaceX has said exactly when events are to occur, and earlier discussions by officials suggested the timing is uncertain. But NASA has scheduled TV coverage beginning at 2:30 a.m. EST Thursday, with a news briefing slated for 10 a.m. Friday’s coverage begins at 2 a.m., with a briefing set for 1 p.m.
Dragon is packed with a half-ton of clothing, food and other supplies, which will be off-loaded Saturday if all goes well. The capsule, which will then be loaded with trash from the station, is scheduled to splash down in the Pacific next Thursday.
If completely successful, SpaceX could immediately go from being a test company to being a commercial resupply contractor, said NASA Deputy Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration Operations. NASA has a $1.5 billion, five-year contract with SpaceX to provide 12 cargo flights over the next several years.
Ultimately, SpaceX hopes to deliver astronauts — Dragon is designed to carry up to seven — to the station as well.
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk compares this flight to the time in the 1990s when commercial interests took over development of the Internet, dramatically accelerating innovation and making it accessible to mass markets.
“I hope and I believe this mission will be historic in marking that turning point toward a rapid advancement in space transportation technology,” said Musk, a South African-born entrepreneur who became a billionaire as a co-founder of the Internet service PayPal. He started SpaceX in 2002 and also founded a car company that makes the battery-powered Tesla.
The mission is also a critical test of the Obama administration’s decision to rely on commercial spacecraft to supply the space station. NASA, now reliant on Russian-built rockets and government-built spacecraft, hopes to ship future cargo via SpaceX and a competitor developing its own rockets, Orbital Sciences.