In truth, astronauts at the International Space Station (ISS) called the odor of SpaceX's Dragon capsule a "new car smell" after opening its hatches on Saturday, not a "new spacecraft smell." SpaceX has come out "smelling like a rose" with this, the first private mission to the ISS.
The Dragon capsule delivered more than half a ton of supplies and experiments to the ISS. It is scheduled to return slightly more cargo to Earth, with the departure from the ISS scheduled for May 31. It will be the first return trip from the ISS to carry any useful cargo since the end of NASA's space shuttle program; the Russian, E.U. and Japanese craft being used since then have no capability to be recovered and burn up in the atmosphere.
U.S. astronaut Don Pettit, who on Friday snared the Dragon capsule with the ISS' robotic arm as the SpaceX craft approached the space station, said, “Like the smell of a brand new car," once the Dragon was opened up.
Later in the day, Pettit said, “I spent quite a bit of time poking around in here this morning, just looking at the engineering and the layout, and I am very pleased. It looks like it carries about as much cargo as I could put in my pickup truck,” adding, “It’s roomier than a Soyuz (Russian spacecraft).”
The specifications for the Dragon capsule make it seem obvious that the craft would be more spacious. The Dragon capsule stands 4.4 meters (14.4 feet) high and is 3.66 meters in diameter, and can carry more than 3,310 kilograms split between pressurized cargo in the capsule and unpressurized cargo in storage. It was built to carry up to seven humans at one time, while the Soyuz carries a maximum of three at a time.
Pettit said, “We have already had all six people in here for a real brief period of time. There is not enough room in here to hold a barn dance, but for transportation of crew up and down through Earth’s atmosphere and into space, which is a rather short period of time, there is plenty of room in here for the envisioned crews.”
If this test flight is completed successfully, SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk of Tesla and PayPal fame, will enter into a $1.6 billion contract with NASA for a dozen flights to the ISS. Rival Orbital Sciences has a $1.9 billion contract of its own, with Orbital’s first test flight scheduled for later this year.
For now, though, the flights will be cargo only. SpaceX aims to begin taking people to the space station by 2015. Until then, astronauts must rely on Russia’s Soyuz for transport to the ISS; each flight costs $63 million per seat.