SpaceX is preparing to launch their Dragon capsule atop their Falcon 9 rocket on Saturday just before 5 a.m. Saturday.
The launch is the second demonstration flight in NASA’s Commercial Orbital transportation Services (COTS) program, an effort to help NASA find a private launch provider to take cargo and crew to the ISS. The company successfully launched, orbited and recovered a Dragon capsule in December 2010 in the COTS Demo Flight 1 mission.
The attention this flight is receiving may seem out of place. On paper it’s an unmanned cargo mission, not that different that those completed every few weeks by Russian, European and Japanese spacecraft. However previous flights were conducted by government agencies using government spacecraft. SpaceX is private company created by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk specifically to meet NASA’s COTS challenge. Saturday’s launch is significant if just that it is the first to the ISS launched from American soil in nearly a year. If successful, the flight will represent big changes in how the United States approaches space travel.
NASA authorized the company to combine objectives of COTS2 and COTS3 to a single mission where possible. As soon as the capsule reaches orbit, the company will begin putting Dragon through its paces ensuring that solar arrays deploy and systems checkout as well as establishing communications with the ISS in preparation for approaching the ISS 2 days later.
Once approach and maneuvering tests are completed successfully, NASA managers in Houston may give the go-ahead to begin work on COTS3 objectives. Dragon will the approach the ISS for a fly by, demonstrating laser ranging instrument.
While future Dragon flights, particularly manned ones, plan to dock automatically using the Dragon Eye instrument installed on station during the last shuttle mission, COTS2+ will dock manually. ISS astronauts have filled the station’s window filled Cupola module with the equipment needed to monitor the approach of capsule. On day four, the stations Canadian built robotic arm is planned to be used to grapple Dragon and dock it near the same point on the station where the shuttle docked 37 times before.
If successful, COTS2+ would compress into a single flight comparable to what project Mercury accomplished over 20 unmanned missions, and more.
The capsule’s 240 cubic feet isn’t going to waste during these maneuvering and docking tests. The capsule is filled with 674 pounds of provisions including 162 meals, batteries and fresh clothing for the crew. Astronauts still do not do laundry in space opting instead to wear clothes for days at a time. An additional 46.3 pounds of payload was loaded recently into the capsule including 15 experiments created by students.
Those experiments are part of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education's Student Spaceflight Experiments Program and were originally planned to reach the station on a Russian rocket but moved to the SpaceX flight when schedules changed.
After about 2 weeks, Dragon will be undocked using the robotic arm and over 1,300 pounds of completed experiments, spent equipment, and garbage will return to Earth, landing in the Pacific Ocean several hundred miles west of California.
SpaceX isn’t the only player in this new space race. Other companies are in it as well including Blue Origin , funded by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. That’s just how NASA wants it too. NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver sees the competition as a great way of ensuring a fair price is paid by NASA for ferrying its astronauts to the ISS. Everyone from Capitol Hill to Houston to the Cape are eager to put the days of paying nearly $63 million for each NASA astronaut’s seat aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft, the current only available method for crew to reach the station.
You can watch the launch live on the company’s website as well as NASA’s website. The 4:55 a.m. launch as well as commentary leading up to it will be carried on NASA TV with coverage starting at 12:30 a.m.
I'll be presenting a talk title "Making the Transition from the Shuttle to Commercial Space Flight" at Astronomy Days at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences this Saturday at 10 a.m. and at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday in the Daily Planet theater in the new wing of the museum. Come by and say hi. There are many activities and workshops planned throughout the weekend for all ages and a variety of talks on topics spanning astrobiology to the origins of solar systems to predicting what alien life might look like.
Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.