The mission is a landmark because it is the first time a privately built spacecraft will head to the International Space Station. The flight, which includes no crew members other than those already on the station who will guide Dragon’s arrival, carries enormous challenges and involves numerous individual evaluations.
Most of the cargo’s weight, 674 pounds, is in food and crew provisions, including the meals, crew clothing and batteries and other pantry items. A laptop and its accompanying accessories will also make the journey.
Tucked inside the Dragon capsule are two NanoRacks dedicated to student experiments that will study a range of microgravity-related areas from microbial growth to water purification.
The mission calls for the 18-foot-high Dragon to approach the station after its sensors and navigation systems are checked out thoroughly. The spacecraft will go through numerous tests during the third day of the flight as it passes within about 1.5 miles of the station. Communications networks from the spacecraft to the station will be evaluated during this phase, too.
The crew aboard the space station will take command of Dragon briefly to test the capsule’s ability to retreat from the station. The spacecraft will later move to a position about 700 feet from the station so controllers can determine whether it is safe to allow a closer rendezvous.
The station crew will unpack the Dragon during the next two weeks and load Dragon with more than 1,400 pounds of used scientific and spacewalking gear. Dragon will then be removed from the station by the arm and released to fly back to Earth.
Unlike the other cargo vehicles that resupply the station, the SpaceX craft is designed to return to Earth safely instead of burning up in the atmosphere. That means experiments and other equipment can be stowed inside the capsule and returned to scientists.
SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. are conducting demonstration missions under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contract, known as COTS.