With SpaceX launch, more than cargo is riding on space station mission (+video)
The Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon capsule are the bread and butter of SpaceX, which hopes for more contracts with NASA and others to ferry things – and people – to and from space.
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“I've had the pleasure of working down here at the Cape with a lot of fantastic teams that have put together a lot of really quality rockets and launched a lot of amazing things. There is none better than this team,” says William Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations, noting the quick recovery from Saturday's launch glitch.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Deliveries in space: the SpaceX mission
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The Dragon spacecraft is carrying just over 1,000 pounds of cargo to the station – items ranging from rations and crew clothing to ice bricks for experiment samples and cargo bags to be used on later missions. And in Dragon's case, what goes up can come down. It's the only resupply craft – current or planned – that can bring cargo back to Earth as well.
The International Space Station's crew watched the launch, which took place as the station passed 249 miles above the North Atlantic east of St. Johns, Newfoundland. With Dragon now safely on orbit, with all systems working as planned, SpaceX is preparing for a series of tests aimed at showing that the autonomous craft can operate safely in the space station's vicinity.
Currently the craft's elliptical orbit brings it to within 37 miles below the station. Throughout the day Tuesday, the craft will conduct rendezvous-abort maneuvers, show it can drift freely with thrusters disabled, and demonstrate its ability to use Global Positioning System satellites for navigation. Meanwhile, controllers will be checking out the craft's navigation sensors, including a radar-like laser system, known as lidar, the craft will use to gauge its distance from the space station.
On Wednesday, the craft is slated to adjust its altitude so that by Thursday it will swing to within 1.5 miles below the station. The craft will undergo additional tests of its GPS navigation system, and the crew aboard the space station will switch on a strobe light on Dragon to confirm the craft is sending and receiving information from a manual control box on the station.
Also on Thursday and into Friday, the craft is slated to fly around the station at a distance of four to six miles, with a carefully choreographed rendezvous and docking slated for Friday.
If all goes well, the station crew will open the craft's hatch on Saturday.
Each of the steps needed to get to that point isn't trivial, Mr. Gerstenmaier suggests.
“Things are moving in the right direction,” he says. But “there are still lots of activities that will occur over the next days that will really stretch the SpaceX team and also stretch the NASA team a little bit as we work together to get to the space station and deliver some demonstration cargo.”
Still, the company's hardware has cleared a critical milestone.
“I would really count today as a success, no matter what happens during the rest of the mission,” Musk says.
To his Twitter followers he added: “Feels like a giant weight just came off my back :)”
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