Around 400 kilometres above northwest Australia the International Space Station Expedition 31 crew successfully captured the SpaceX Dragon capsule with the station’s robotic arm just before midnight AEST. The feat came 3 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 23 seconds after the mission’s launch.
When the crew of the ISS reached out today with the Canada robotic arm to grab SpaceX’s Dragon cargo capsule and bring it in for the Space Station’s first-ever hook-up with a commercial spaceship, history was made.
It marks the first contact with a U.S.-made spacecraft at the station since last year’s retirement of NASA’s space shuttle fleet, and potentially opens the way for dozens of orbital cargo shipments. If the long-range plan unfolds as NASA hopes, U.S. astronauts could be shuttled back and forth on the Dragon or similar spacecraft within just a few years.
The hook-up follows from Tuesday’s successful launch of the Dragon atop a Falcon 9 rocket, and represents the culmination of years of planning and hundreds of millions of dollars of spending by NASA and California-based SpaceX, known more formally as Space Exploration Technologies Corp.
Now if all goes to plan, berthing should be finished by 7am AEST and later on in the day the hatch to the Dragon would be opened and the six astronauts on board the ISS will unload about 460 kilograms of cargo, including food, clothes, batteries and a laptop as well as 15 student-designed experiments. Then they will load the ship up with approximately 660 kilograms of Earth-bound cargo, including personal items from the crew as well as completed experiments and old equipment.
On May 31, the capsule would be detached from the station and sent back down toward a Pacific Ocean splashdown and recovery off the coast of Southern California, which would mark the first-ever return of a commercial spacecraft from the space station. Russia’s Soyuz capsule is the only other existing space vehicle capable of returning space station payloads.
If today’s operation doesn’t work out, NASA and SpaceX could make another attempt at a berthing and if that failed, another demonstration mission would have to be mounted. But once SpaceX proves that its system works reliably, the company could proceed with cargo resupply missions in earnest. It already has a $US1.6 billion contract with NASA for 12 Dragon shipments through 2016.
It is anticipated that if all goes ahead then the first astronaut flights could take place as early as 2017. Until then, NASA will have to depend on the Russians to transport U.S. astronauts on Soyuz spacecraft, at a cost of more than $60 million a seat. SpaceX and other players in the commercial space race say they can meet or beat that price.
Another interesting piece of cargo on board the second stage of the rocket were the ashes of 308 hard-core space fans finally making it to “Space – the Final Frontier”. Each set of remains was in a lipstick sized container and included the ashes of Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper, who died in 2004, and actor James Doohan, who portrayed chief engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott on the original Star Trek television series and who died in 2005.
Falcon’s second stage separated from the Dragon less than 10 minutes after lift-off and went into its own orbit. The stage should spend the next year or so circling Earth as an orbital space memorial before it is pulled back into the atmosphere and incinerated. In case you are interested costs for these Earth Orbiting memorials is about $US3,000.