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Saturday, June 2, 2012

New Era in Space Travel


ISS CanadArm releases Dragon cargo spacecraft.

SpaceX Made space history yesterday, and set the path for future commercial activities in space. On Thursday morning, astronauts aboard the ISS used the remote manipulator CanadArm to move an undocked Dragon cargo spacecraft from the U.S. Harmony module. Dragon had just completed its task to be the first commercial (non-government project) spacecraft to deliver supplies to the ISS. However, it was still scheduled for one more task: a safe return to the Earth.

Camera view from CanadArm: "Dragon Flight 001 now departing for California."

The Expedition 31 astronauts and cosmonauts had received 1000 pounds of supplies brought up by the Dragon, after a successful rendezvous and docking procedure that went nearly flawlessly. Then, with the cargo space emptied, they carefully packed in about 1,400 pounds of scientific equipment and samples that needed to be returned to NASA. With the closing of the shuttle program, the ability to bring back equipment (other than tiny packages in a Soyuz capsule) had been lost.
With the hatches aboard Dragon and the ISS sealed, the craft was undocked and the robot arm moved the Dragon gently away from the Harmony module. Upon release, SpaceX mission controls remotely control thrusters to move the Dragon away from the station and lower in orbit. A short time later, the Dragon service module engine began a 9-minute retrofire burn to slow down the Dragon from its speed of 17,500 mph. The service module was then jettisoned and the capsule began orientation to enter the atmosphere.

Artist rendering of Dragon re-entry. Credit: SpaceX.

Dragon began a fiery re-entry over the Indian ocean and proceeded towards the west coast of the USA. The parachutes deployed perfectly and the Dragon splashed down in the Pacific Ocean not far off the coast of Baja California. Recovery vessels soon found the craft and recovered it.

Hoping that Dragons aren't seasick. Credit: SpaceX.

With the successful completion of this test mission to the ISS, SpaceX completes its tests for the government and will now begin regular supply mission to the ISS, returning US space supply capability to our space program. Instead of terribly costly shuttle missions bring supplies to the ISS, NASA can hire out delivery services, saving millions of dollars. This will be the new norm for space exploration in Earth orbit: NASA will lead the way in exploration while private business takes over the routines of supply and travel infrastructure. Of course now it remains for a private company to supply human flight opportunities to low Earth orbit and the ISS. We should see these developments expand during the next few years. SpaceX and other companies are already designing, building, and testing human-rated capsules for use on new and current rocket boosters.

By Mark Daymont
Space Center Educator
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