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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Dragon Blasts Off to ISS!

Falcon 9 rocket blasts off with Dragon spacecraft from pad LC-40.

In a remarkable first for space exploration, a private corporation has sent a spacecraft carrying supplies to the International Space Station. After the launch abort on May 19th, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) engineers replaced a faulty check valve on engine number 5 (dubbed "Merlin") and prepared for a new countdown. Early this morning at 3:44 am EDT, the engines ignited perfectly and the Falcon 9 rocket made a smooth and flawless flight into space. The Dragon capsule separated without error and entered low Earth orbit. On schedule, the Dragon deployed its twin solar panels, a first for SpaceX and the Dragon design. The next step was to "open the pod bay door"(a reference to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, if you haven't seen it, you're not a space fan...). The navigation bay pod door has to open in order to deploy several experiments and reveal the docking latch, that will be used by the ISS robotic arm to grapple the Dragon prior to docking. Engineers breathed a sigh of relief as the door successfully opened (SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted that it was a better result than that on 2001).
Dragon is on course to pass by the ISS on DAY 4 of its mission, should all orbital tests be completed. After that, the Dragon will approach the station again for a rendezvous with the CanadArm for docking. A lot of hope rides on this mission, and should it be completed successfully, it will end the test phase of the COTS2 program for SpaceX and the company will begin regular supply missions to the ISS, a great leap for commercial space applications.

SpaceX, NASA prepare for Dragon launch

Liftoff! No- Wait- Guess not...

Wonderful thing, that technology. I have this amazing device called an alarm clock that woke me a half hour before SpaceX's expected flight of the Dragon spacecraft in the wee hours of May 19. I switched to NASA TV, and there it was, SpaceX's Falcon rocket with Dragon spacecraft ready to launch. Everything seemed ready to go, until the actual launch. Then as the engine began ignition, the system automatically shut down (as it was designed to do) at T- 0.5 seconds. The cause: higher pressures than allowed in the center engine of the Falcon rocket.
Well, better an abort than a mission failure! There is an awful lot of space business riding on this mission. It will be the first commercial cargo delivery to the ISS and the start of a new way of doing space business for our country. Unfortunately, there are some people in congress who do not want space business out of the hands of the government.  For my part, I'm hoping this mission will be a tremendous success. Within seconds, SpaceX engineers were working to resolve the problem and set the mission back on the timetable. And they have done so. A faulty check valve on the "Merlin" engine - no. 5- on the first stage is the guilty party, and currently engineers are switching out the valve. SpaceX and NASA will try agian on Tuesday, May 22, at 1:44 a.m. MDT. Time to set that alarm again.
Soyuz TMA-04M docked at ISS. Part of ISS blocks the front module of the Soyuz capsule.

Meanwhile, up in space... The second part of the Expedition 31 crew arrived at the ISS on Thursday, May 17 bringing the crew to its full complement of six space explorers.  The Soyuz TMA-04M docked to the Russian Poisk Module. Cosmonauts Gennady Padalka, Sergei Revin, and astronaut Joe Acaba joined Expedition 31 Commander Oleg Kononenko (Russian), Andre Kuipers (From the Eurpean Space Agency) and flight engineer Donald Petite (NASA). 
Astronauts Petite and Kuipers will be operating the CanadArm robotic arm should the Dragon spacecraft reach the ISS. The arm will grapple the spacecraft, and maneuver it to dock at the ISS. The docking will be at the US Harmony module.
By Mark Daymont
Space Center Educator
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