Sunday, October 07, 2012

SpaceX rockets to ISS on first official cargo resupply mission

Fresh off its successful late May mission to the International Space Station, the first official SpaceX mission rocketed toward a rendezvous with the ISS on Sunday night (video embedded below). The May mission was a test run, showing that SpaceX and its Falcon booster and Dragon capsule could successfully carry cargo to and from the ISS.

The successful completion of that mission, which began on May 22 and ended on May 31, enabled SpaceX and NASA to enter into a $1.6 billion contract covering a dozen missions. During that May mission, SpaceX became the first private entity to launch a mission to the ISS, dock with the space station, and return successfully to Earth after doing so, setting records at each mark.

On its first official mission, launched Sunday, the spacecraft carried 1,000 pounds of science experiments and other gear. There was a savory confection as well: chocolate-vanilla swirl ice cream stored in a freezer for the three ISS residents.

Without a craft like SpaceX's Dragon capsule, the ISS wasn't able to offload any cargo. The Russian, European or Japanese cargo ships used since the end of NASA's space shuttle program cannot bring anything useful back; they are destroyed during re-entry, so at best they could carry back garbage to be destroyed in the atmosphere.

The Dragon will return to earth with twice as much cargo as it brought with it, including a cache of astronaut blood and urine samples. The samples - and there are nearly 500 of them - have been stored in freezers, waiting for a vehicle like Dragon since Atlantis made the last shuttle flight in July of 2011.

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The Dragon capsule will spend nearly three weeks at the space station before returning to earth at the end of October and parachuting into the Pacific. By then, the ISS should be back up to a full crew of six, with more crew delivered via a Russian Soyuz mission. Americans must ride Soyuz craft to the ISS, for a steep price, as SpaceX still cannot provide manned missions to the ISS.

However, SpaceX, which is owned by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, is working to convert its unmanned Dragon capsules into craft that can carry astronauts to the ISS. Meanwhile, though, other U.S. companies are also attempting to create craft that can conduct manned missions.

SpaceX - Space Exploration Technologies Corp. - named its vehicles for fanciful characters, but for a reason. Musk named the capsule Dragon after Puff the Magic Dragon to snipe at critics who, a decade ago, considered his space exploration effort a fantasy. The Falcon name of the booster rocket comes from the Millennium Falcon of "Star Wars" fame.

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