CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida – A Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) Falcon 9 rocket carrying its Dragon spacecraft lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 8:35 p.m. EDT Sunday, beginning NASA’s first contracted cargo delivery flight, designated SpaceX CRS-1, to the International Space Station. Under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contract, SpaceX will fly at least 12 cargo missions to the space station through 2016. The contract is worth $1.6 billion.
The Dragon spacecraft will be grappled at 7:22 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 10, by Expedition 33 crew members Sunita Williams of NASA and Aki Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, who will use the station’s robotic arm to install the Dragon. The capsule is scheduled to spend 18 days attached to the station. It then will return for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of southern California.
“Just over one year after the retirement of the space shuttle, we have returned space station cargo resupply missions to U.S. soil and are bringing the jobs associated with this work back to America,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. “The SpaceX launch tonight marks the official start of commercial resupply missions by American companies operating out of U.S. spaceports like the one right here in Florida.”
Dragon is delivering a total of 882 pounds of supplies to the orbiting laboratory, including 260 pounds of crew supplies, 390 pounds of scientific research, 225 pounds of hardware and several pounds of other supplies. Dragon will return a total of 1,673 pounds of supplies, including 163 pounds of crew supplies, 866 pounds of scientific research, 518 pounds of vehicle hardware and other hardware.
Dragon’s capability to return cargo from the station is critical for supporting scientific research in the orbiting laboratory’s unique microgravity environment, which enables important benefits for humanity and vastly increases understanding of how humans can safely work, live and thrive in space for long periods. The ability to return frozen samples is a first for this flight and will be tremendously beneficial to the station’s research community. Not since the space shuttle have NASA and its international partners been able to return considerable amounts of research and samples for analysis.
Materials being launched on Dragon will support experiments in plant cell biology, human biotechnology and various materials technology demonstrations, among others. One experiment, called Micro 6, will examine the effects of microgravity on the opportunistic yeast Candida albicans, which is present on all humans. Another experiment, called Resist Tubule, will evaluate how microgravity affects the growth of cell walls in a plant called Arabidopsis. About 50 percent of the energy expended by terrestrial-bound plants is dedicated to structural support to overcome gravity. Understanding how the genes that control this energy expenditure operate in microgravity could have implications for future genetically modified plants and food supply. Both Micro 6 and Resist Tubule will return with the Dragon at the end of its mission.
SpaceX is one of two companies that built and tested new cargo spacecraft under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. SpaceX completed its final demonstration test in May when it flew to the station and performed a series of checkout maneuvers, ultimately being grappled by the station crew and installed on the complex.
Orbital Sciences is the other company participating in COTS. Orbital’s Antares launch vehicle is currently on the launch pad at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The launch vehicle and pad will undergo a series of fueling tests that will take about three weeks. After tests are completed, a hot fire test will be conducted. Finally, a test flight of the Antares rocket with a simulated Cygnus spacecraft will be flown in late 2012. A demonstration flight of Cygnus to the station is planned in early 2013.
NASA initiatives like COTS and the agency’s Commercial Crew Program are helping develop a robust U.S. commercial space transportation industry with the goal of achieving safe, reliable and cost-effective transportation to and from the space station and low Earth orbit. In addition to cargo flights, NASA’s commercial space partners are making progress toward a launch of astronauts from U.S. soil in the next 5 years.
While NASA works with U.S. industry partners to develop and advance these commercial spaceflight capabilities, the agency also is developing the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System (SLS), a crew capsule and heavy-lift rocket to provide an entirely new capability for human exploration. Designed to be flexible for launching spacecraft for crew and cargo missions, SLS and Orion will expand human presence beyond low Earth orbit and enable new missions of exploration in the solar system.
Image and Video Credit: NASA