As I am sure many of you aware, history was made this weekend. SpaceX’s Dragon capsule became the first commercial spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station. This is a landmark achievement for them and I imagine the team, is insanely proud of themselves (I know I would be). The fact remains that the saga isn’t over yet, the capsule still has to detach safely and return to Earth for the test to be a complete test, but I think most people agree that the biggest hurdle has been overcome.
I am finding this developing arm of the space industry fascinating, the idea of the competition that will be in the private sector almost hints at the emotion that drove Man to the moon back in the 60′s. I think we may be on the cusp of seeing a real explosion of space technology to develop as several of these big companies really start competing for contracts and the recognition of achieving landmark goals first. SpaceX clearly have a small advantage but a couple of organizations are nipping at their heels, such as Orbital Sciences who also have a contract to resupply the ISS. I think we are in interesting times for the space industry.
Below you will find the most recent blog entry I wrote for the MSN UK ‘Exploring Space’ Blog. This was posted after the launch of the Falcon rocket but before the docking took place. As a side not you may notice that some of the MSN articles I post will be slightly outdated, especially while I upload the back catalogue, so please go look at their site. But I would also love if you read the articles here and let me know your thoughts. So here is the article.
SpaceX was the first company to put a privately built spacecraft into orbit and return it safely to Earth. The company’s CEO took this even further. He declared he wanted to be the first company to put an astronaut into orbit.
On Tuesday 22 May they moved one step closer to their goal. Lift off of their Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule combination took place at 8:44am (BST). This is a demonstration mission that culminates in the docking of the capsule with the International Space Station (ISS). If successful this will be another first for SpaceX, being the first privately built spacecraft to dock with the station, If all goes to plan this mission will start an era whereby the ISS will be by private companies. SpaceX already holds a contract with NASA to provide the cargo transport for the station but the success of this mission is vital to show that SpaceX is up to the job of successfully transporting human crew.
Over the next four days the orbiting capsule will go through a series of maneuverability tests and system checks. These are designed to check that the capsule is functioning as expected and intended. Once these checks have been performed SpaceX will be given permission to allow Dragon to drift within 10 meters of the ISS. After the capsule has reached this distance the astronauts on board the space station will grab the capsule using one of the robotic arms. This will pull the capsule into the docking position. This method has been used twice before, for the capture of two Japanese supply craft.
SpaceX have worked hard over the last 10 years to achieve the bold goals they have set for themselves; already looking to develop crew transports, heavy lifters and even looking towards a Mars capable craft, but it hasn’t been an easy ride.
SpaceX suffered a few minor setbacks during the development of their first rocket, the Falcon 1, with engine issues resulting in one lost vehicle and two other unsuccessful missions. Development of the current rocket, Falcon 9, has been a lot more successful with only minor setbacks concerning some of the systems and safety precautions on board providing any resistive forces.
The launch on Tuesday represents a rapid recovery from an aborted launch attempt just a few days earlier on the 19 May. This abort was caused when one of the engines was not operating as expected, this resulted in an automatic shut down and launch abort. The issue was then investigated and measures were taken to resolve the problem, which led them to a successful launch on Tuesday.
As this mission gets off to a flying start it marks the beginning of a period of intense worry and frustration. The Dragon capsule needs to perform well in the subsequent tests to ensure it gets to make its mark of becoming the first commercial capsule to dock with the ISS.
We will be watching this mission very carefully and wish SpaceX the best of luck.
Written by Josh Barker, Presenter at the National Space Centre.