Dragon Grappled and Berthed for History Making Docking at Station Today – May 25

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The first private spacecraft – named Dragon – was berthed at the International Space Station (ISS) today, May 25, after being dramatically captured by the astronaut crew earlier this morning using the station’s robotic arm in a landmark event in space history – Dragon is the first commercial spacecraft to attach to the International Space Station.

“Capture is confirmed at 9:56 a.m. EDT [1356 GMT],” said Mission Control Houston commentator Josh Byerly, “as the spacecraft [Dragon & ISS] were passing about 251 miles over northwest Australia. Official mission elapsed time was 3 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes and 23 seconds when capture occurred.”

Two hours later, Dragon was successfully attached to the ISS at 12:02 p.m. EDT when 16 motorized bolts on the common berthing mechanism (CBM) latched and locked the cargo vessel to the Harmony module as the giant complex was soaring over the Pacific Northwest region of the US – concluding a dramatic day of momentus space spectaculars.

SpaceX has done it. They are the first private company to launch and dock their own spacecraft at the International Space Station. Dragon has been successfully captured.”

“Looks like we caught a Dragon by the tail !” said a gleeful Astronaut Don Pettit of NASA who plucked the Dragon from space with the robotic arm as it was in free drift about 10 meters from the station.

Today’s successful Dragon capture and docking ushers in a new era in the history of spaceflight and will radically change the way we do business in space from this day forward.

NASA’s goal is to significantly drive down the cost of transporting cargo and crews to low Earth orbit by using private commercial companies to foster competition and innovation in the free market – much like happened with the airline industry of last century.

Screen captures from inside 40 m

The Dragon cargo resupply capsule is a commercial spacecraft designed and developed by SpaceX and was flawlessly launched atop a Falcon 9 booster from Cape Canaveral, Florida on a historic test flight on May 22 to become the first private vehicle ever to rendezvous and dock at the million pound orbiting space complex.

Following a successful series of close approach rendezvous tests on Thursday, May 24, when it flew to the ISS from behind and below during fly-under maneuvers to within 2.4 km (1.6 mi), the commercial cargo carrier was cleared for final rendezvous, grappling and docking today.

Dragon at 30 m hold point on May 25

This morning at about 7 a.m. EDT Dragon was given permission to enter the so called keep out sphere (KOS) which is 200 meters from the station. KOS is an imaginary circle drawn around the ISS that prevents the risk of collision with the massive orbiting lab complex. The ISS is orbiting some 400 km (250 miles) above Earth.

Dragon utilized a combination of LIDAR laser ranging and thermal imagers sensors to determine distance as it closed in on the ISS to the final hold point about 10 meters (30 ft) away for final capture by two astronauts on board at work stations located inside the Cupola dome maneuvering the stations robotic arm. The Dragon’s thrusters are disabled at the 10 meter point to prevent an accidental firing and any undesired movement leading to a potential collision.

Dragon was commanded by the SpaceX flight control team based in Hawthorne, Calif, to slowly approach the ISS from below, gradually stopping along the way at ever closer hold points (250 m, 200 m, 150 m, 70 m, 30 m, 10 m) to confirm the crafts position and velocity and that all spacecraft navigation systems were functioning properly to insure a safe capture and berthing operation.

Dragon reached the 30 m hold point at about 9:14 a.m. EDT and then had to wait for final approval and before proceeding closer to the station.

Dragon arrived at the final 10 m hold point at about 9:45 a.m.

“Crew is ready for Dragon capture,” said ISS Astronaut Kuipers from the European Space Agency (ESA).

“You have a go for capture,” said Houston Mission control at about 9:49 a.m. EDT

The International Space Station as captured by thermal camera on-board Dragon during approach on May 25. Credit: SpaceX

Some stray retro reflections emanating from the external pallet on Japanese Kibo module affected measurements by the Dragons LIDAR system causing a minor 2 hour delay in final approach and grappling as the unit was recalibrated. Indeed one of the LIDAR units was taken offline due to suspect readings but the mission still continued. Since this is a test flight delays are to be expected.

Expedition 31 Flight Engineers Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers worked in tandem using the Canadarm2 robotic arm to reach out and grapple the supply ship shortly before 10 a.m. EDT for berthing to the Earth-facing side of the station’s Harmony node later today.

SpaceX Dragon successfully grappled today, May 25, 2012 in a historic making feat by astronauts using the robotic arm aboard the International Space Station (ISS) at 9:56 a.m. Dragon is the first private spacecraft to ever dock at the ISS. Credit: NASA TV

Pettit successfully grappled the Dragon with the robotic arm at 9:56 a.m. EDT Kuiper accomplished the berthing a few hours later.

Pettit inspected the Dragon’s berthing mechanism with high powered binoculars after the grappling was done and found it to be in good shape for the subsequent joining to the ISS with sign of no damage from micrometeoroids.

“It looks like a clean interface,” said Pettit to Mission Control.

SpaceX Dragon successfully grappled today, May 25, 2012 in a historic making feat by astronauts using the robotic arm aboard the International Space Station (ISS) at 9:56 a.m. (1356 GMT). Dragon is the first private spacecraft to ever dock at the ISS. Credit: NASA TV

Dragon is scheduled to spend about a week docked with the station before returning to Earth for a parachute assisted splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California on May 31 for an ocean retrieval.

For this initial test flight Dragon is loaded with over 460 kg (1100 pounds) of non-critical items such as food, water, clothing as well as research equipment and student science experiments.

The ISS crew expects to open the hatch and enter the Dragon for the first time on Saturday, May 26.

SpaceX has invested about $1.2 Billion in development of the Falcon 9 and Dragon space vehicles and also received about $381 Million in funding from NASA under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) initiative to develop commercial cargo vehicles to resupply the station.

Dragon will partially replace the cargo carrying duties that were totally lost when NASA’s space shuttles were prematurely and forcibly retired by US politicians after the final shuttle mission in July 2011. No American vehicle has visited the ISS since the shuttle shutdown. The US is now fully dependent on the Russians to ferry astronauts to the ISS for at least the next 3 to 5 years or more and the gap continues to grow as NASA’s budget is slashed by visionless politicians.

SpaceX is under contract with NASA to conduct a dozen Falcon 9/Dragon resupply missions to carry about 44,000 pounds of cargo to the ISS at a cost of some $1.6 Billion over the next few years.

The first operational Dragon resupply mission to the ISS is expected later this year, perhaps as soon as late summer.

Dragon at 80 m from the Space Station on May 25, 2012. NASA TV
Dragon at the 250-meter hold position, just outside the “keep-out” sphere of the International Space Station on May 25. NASA TV
SpaceX Dragon Commercial Cargo Craft Approaches the International Space Station on May 24, 2012. Credit: NASA

A mission status briefing was held at 1 p.m. EDT to discuss the day’s activities and all the days momentous events were broadcast live on NASA TV.

The high stakes Dragon mission to the High Frontier has been a resounding success thus far and its importance to NASA’s future and the future of human spaceflight cannot be overstated.

Ken Kremer

Spectacular SpaceX Launch Opens Historic New Era in Spaceflight

[/caption]Following this morning’s (May 22) spectacular nighttime blastoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, human exploration of the cosmos embarked on a radical new course that will never be the same again.

The long awaited liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 3:44 a.m. lit up the Florida Space Coast for miles around as it roared off Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida on a history making mission bound for the International Space Station (ISS).

In a split second the page was turned to open a new era in humankinds exploration and exploitation of space that promises adventures to come that will one day be viewed as building a bridge from the dawn of the space age and the first human steps on the moon to starships that will one day ply the shores of interstellar space.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket topped by the Dragon cargo capsule thundered to space from Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 3:44 am (May 22) and is now safely in orbit with solar arrays deployed and is chasing the ISS flying some 249 miles overhead.

“I congratulate SpaceX for just an absolutely amazing countdown, launch and orbit insertion today, said Bill Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington. “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 quality rockets and launched a lot of amazing things. I tell you, the SpaceX team, there is none better than this team that has really done a phenomenal job today.”

The on time Falcon 9 blastoff came three days after the first launch attempt was aborted a T Minus 0 when a computer automatically shutdown the already firing engines as it detected a high chamber pressure in one of the nine first stage Merlin 1 C engines.

“Every bit of adrenaline in my body released at that moment,” said Elon Musk to reporters at the post launch media briefing about the moment the rocket lifted off the pad. Musk is the founder, CEO and chief designer of SpaceX. “People were really giving it their all. For us, it was like winning the Super Bowl.”

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket clears the tower after liftoff at 3:44 a.m. from Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.,on the first commercial mission to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com

Dragon will be the first private spacecraft that will rendezvous and dock with the ISS. After conducting a complicated series of rendezvous tests and maneuvers, docking is expected on day 4 of the mission on Friday morning EDT, May 26.

“There’s still a thousand things that have to go right, but we are looking forward to this exciting mission,” said Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program.

Dragon will fly within range of the robotic arm. NASA Astronaut Don Pettit will grapple it and berth the Dragon on the earth facing side of the Harmony module.

NASA TV will provide live docking coverage

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Dragon Launch Slides to May 19

[/caption]SpaceX has announced that the upcoming launch of the firms Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft on the commercial COTS 2 mission has been postponed to a new target date of no earlier than May 19 with a backup launch date of May 22.

On May 19, the Falcon 9 rocket would lift off on its first night time launch at 4:55 a.m. EDT (0855 GMT) from Space Launch Complex-40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Two launch opportunities had been available this week on May 7 and May 10, following the most recent slip from April 30.

SpaceX managers made the decision – in consultation with NASA – to delay the COTS 2 launch in order to complete further highly critical testing and verifications of all the flight software requirements for the Dragon spacecraft to safely and successfully carry its mission of rendezvousing and docking with the International Space Station (ISS).

“SpaceX and NASA are nearing completion of the software assurance process, and SpaceX is submitting a request to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for a May 19th launch target with a backup on May 22nd,” said SpaceX spokesperson Kirstin Grantham.

“Thus far, no issues have been uncovered during this process, but with a mission of this complexity we want to be extremely diligent.”

May 10 was the last window of opportunity this week because of the pending May 14 blast off of a new Russian Soyuz TMA-04M capsule from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with three fresh crew members bound for the ISS which will restore the outpost to a full crew complement of 6 human residents.

The Falcon 9 and Dragon can only be launched about every three days.

The purpose of Dragon is to carry supplies up to and back from the ISS. Dragon is a commercial spacecraft developed by SpaceX and designed to replace some of the cargo resupply functions previously conducted by NASA’s fleet of prematurely retired Space Shuttle orbiters. At this moment the US has zero capability to launch cargo or crews to the ISS.

SpaceX Dragon approaches the ISS on 1st test flight and Station Docking in 2012. Astronauts will grapple it with the robotic arm and berth it at the Earth facing port of the Harmony node. Illustration: NASA /SpaceX

In response to the SpaceX announcement, NASA issued the following statement from from William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington:

“After additional reviews and discussions between the SpaceX and NASA teams, we are in a position to proceed toward this important launch. The teamwork provided by these teams is phenomenal. There are a few remaining open items, but we are ready to support SpaceX for its new launch date of May 19.”

SpaceX is under contract with NASA to conduct twelve resupply missions to the ISS to carry cargo back and forth for a cost of some $1.6 Billion.

Dragon is loaded with nearly 1200 pounds of non-critical cargo such as food and clothing on this flight.

The COTS 2 mission has been repeatedly delayed since the originally planned target of mid-2011 when SpaceX requested that the COTS 2 and 3 flights be combined into one mission to save time. The first Dragon docking to the ISS was initially planned for the COTS 3 mission.

This SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket inside the processing hanger at Pad 40 is due for liftoff on May 19, 2012 to the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com

Ken Kremer

How to Capture a Dragon in Space

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With the upcoming historic launch of the SpaceX Dragon capsule to the International Space Station, astronauts in orbit have been getting ready for the first commercial spacecraft that will bring supplies to the station. Astronauts Don Pettit and André Kuipers will be manually capturing and berthing the Dragon capsule, using the ISS’s Canadarm2. Originally, current station commander Dan Burbank was to be the main arm operator, but with the delay in Dragon’s launch (it was originally scheduled for February 2012), Burbank will already be back on Earth by the time Dragon reaches the station, currently scheduled for May 3. So now, Pettit and Kuipers have had to take over the duties and learn their new jobs while in space. Without the high-tech simulators that NASA has at Johnson Space Center, how do the astronauts prepare and practice for this important event?

“We have a really neat capability here on Station,” Pettit said during a press conference last week. “I have it set up all the time, so I wake up in the morning and have a bag of coffee in my mouth and a cinnamon scone in one hand and flying the simulator with the other.”

The crew actually has two ways to practice for Dragon’s arrival.

“One is actually flying (practicing with) the Canadarm, which is the world’s best trainer,” Pettit said, “and then on station we have two space station computers which double as an Arm simulator, and it has a full set of the Arm hand controllers – the setup, which we call Robot allows us to fly track and capture trajectories just as if we were in the simulators in Houston.”

Initially Burbank would have been the main arm officer, with Pettit and Kuipers assisting. Now, Pettit and Kuipers will have to complete the task themselves, with the two of them doing all the things that the three of them were originally trained to do.

For the capture and berthing, Pettit and Kuipers will be in the Cupola, with Pettit as prime operator and Kuipers as second arm operator. “We will have arm operation in the (Destiny) lab as a ‘hot backup’ just in case of contingencies, and we can activate it there if needed.”

The two astronauts will use the Station’s Canadarm2 to first grab the spacecraft and then maneuver it into place to mate with the Harmony module’s Earth-facing docking port.

Pettit said the on-orbit training has been invaluable. “It is really good to have that type of capability,” he said.

The following animation from the Canadian Space Agency shows just how complex it is to capture a Dragon in space.

SpaceX’s launch and Dragon’s arrival will be the premiere test flight in NASA’s new strategy to resupply the ISS with privately developed rockets and cargo carriers under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) initiative. Even though it is technically a est flight, NASA isn’t about to pass up an opportunity to send supplies to the station. Dragon will carry about nearly 521 kg (1,150 pounds) of cargo, mainly food and some spare parts for the ISS. When Dragon departs, the station crew will load nearly 680 kg (1,500 pounds) of cargo to be sent back to Earth, since the Dragon capsule won’t burn up in the atmosphere like other supply ships — it will be recovered in the ocean.

SpaceX Test Fires SuperDraco Abort Engines Critical To Astronaut Launch Safety

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Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has test fired a prototype of its new SuperDraco engine that will be critical to saving the lives of astronauts flying aboard a manned Dragon spacecraft soaring to orbit in the event of an in-flight emergency.

The successful full-duration, full-thrust firing of the new SuperDraco engine prototype was completed at the company’s Rocket Development Facility in McGregor, Texas. The SuperDraco is a key component of the launch abort system of the Dragon spacecraft that must fire in a split second to insure crew safety during launch and the entire ascent to orbit.

The Dragon spacecraft is SpaceX’s entry into NASA’s commercial crew development program – known as CCDEV2 – that seeks to develop a commercial ‘space taxi’ to launch human crews to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS).

The engine fired for 5 seconds during the test, which is the same length of time the engines need to burn during an actual emergency abort to safely thrust the astronauts away.

Watch the SpaceX SuperDraco Engine Test Video:

Nine months ago NASA awarded $75 million to SpaceX to design and test the Dragon’s launch abort system . The SuperDraco firing was the ninth of ten milestones that are to be completed by SpaceX by around May 2012 and that were stipulated and funded by a Space Act Agreement (SAA) with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

“SpaceX and all our industry partners are being extremely innovative in their approaches to developing commercial transportation capabilities,” said Commercial Crew Program Manager Ed Mango in a NASA statement. “We are happy that our investment in SpaceX was met with success in the firing of its new engine.”

Dragon will launch atop the Falcon 9 rocket, also developed by SpaceX.

SpaceX test-fires its SuperDraco engine that will eventually power the manned Dragon spacecrafts launch escape system critical for Astronaut safety during launch to orbit. Credit: SpaceX

“Eight SuperDracos will be built into the sidewalls of the Dragon spacecraft, producing up to 120,000 pounds of axial thrust to quickly carry astronauts to safety should an emergency occur during launch,” said Elon Musk, SpaceX chief executive officer and chief technology officer in a statement. “Those engines will have the ability to deep throttle, providing astronauts with precise control and enormous power.”

“Crews will have the unprecedented ability to escape from danger at any point during the launch because the launch abort engines are integrated into the side walls of the vehicle,” Musk said. “With eight SuperDracos, if any one engine fails the abort still can be carried out successfully.”

SuperDraco engines will power the launch escape system of SpaceX’s Dragon. Eight SuperDraco engines built into the side walls of the Dragon spacecraft will produce up to 120,000 pounds of axial thrust to carry astronauts to safety should an emergency occur during launch. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX is one of four commercial firms working to develop a new human rated spacecraft with NASA funding. The other firms vying for a commercial crew contract are Boeing, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin.

“SuperDraco engines represent the best of cutting edge technology,” says Musk. “These engines will power a revolutionarylaunch escape system that will make Dragon the safest spacecraft in history and enable it to land propulsively on Earth or another planet with pinpoint accuracy.”

The privately developed space taxi’s will eventually revive the capability to ferry American astronauts to and from the ISS that was totally lost when NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiters were forcibly retired before a replacement crew vehicle was ready to launch.

Because the US Congress slashed NASA’s commercial crew development funding by more than 50% -over $400 million – the first launch of a commercial space taxi is likely to be delayed several more years to about 2017. Until that time, all American astronauts must hitch a ride to the ISS aboard Russian Soyuz capsules.

This week the Russian manned space program suffered the latest in a string of failures when when technicians performing a crucial test mistakenly over pressurized and damaged the descent module of the next manned Soyuz vehicle set to fly to the ISS in late March, thereby forcing about a 45 day delay to the launch of the next manned Soyuz from Kazakhstan.

NASA announces Feb. 7 launch for 1st SpaceX Docking to ISS

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Make or break time for NASA’s big bet on commercial space transportation is at last in view. NASA has announced Feb. 7, 2012 as the launch target date for the first attempt by SpaceX to dock the firms Dragon cargo resupply spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS), pending final safety reviews.

The Feb. 7 flight will be the second of the so-called Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration flights to be conducted by Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, under a contact with NASA.

Several months ago SpaceX had requested that the objectives of the next two COTS flights, known as COTS 2 and COTS 3, be merged into one very ambitious flight and allow the Dragon vehicle to actually dock at the ISS instead of only accomplishing a rendezvous test on the next flight and waiting until the third COTS flight to carry out the final docking attempt.

The Dragon will remain attached to the ISS for about one week and astronauts will unload the cargo. Then the spacecraft will depart, re-enter the Earth atmosphere splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.

“The cargo is hundreds of pounds of astronaut provisions,” SpaceX spokeswoman Kirstin Grantham told Universe Today.

SpaceX Dragon approaches the ISS
Astronauts can reach it with the robotic arm and berth it at the Earth facing port of the Harmony node. Illustration: NASA /SpaceX

“SpaceX has made incredible progress over the last several months preparing Dragon for its mission to the space station,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. “We look forward to a successful mission, which will open up a new era in commercial cargo delivery for this international orbiting laboratory.”

Since the forced retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle following the final fight with orbiter Atlantis in July 2011 on the STS-135 mission, the US has had absolutely zero capability to launch either supplies or human crews to the massive orbiting complex, which is composed primarily of US components.

In a NASA statement, Gerstenmaier added, “There is still a significant amount of critical work to be completed before launch, but the teams have a sound plan to complete it and are prepared for unexpected challenges. As with all launches, we will adjust the launch date as needed to gain sufficient understanding of test and analysis results to ensure safety and mission success.”

SpaceX lofted the COTS 1 flight a year ago on Dec. 8, 2010 and became the first private company to successfully launch and return a spacecraft from Earth orbit. SpaceX assembled both the Falcon 9 booster rocket and the Dragon cargo vessel from US built components.

An astronaut operating the robot arm aboard the ISS will move Dragon into position at the berthing port where it will be locked in place at the Harmony node. Illustration: NASA /SpaceX

The new demonstration flight is now dubbed COTS 2/3. The objectives include Dragon safely demonstrating all COTS 2 operations in the vicinity of the ISS by conducting check out procedures and a series of rendezvous operations at a distance of approximately two miles and the ability to abort if necessary.

The European ATV and Japanese HTV cargo vessels carried out a similar series of tests during their respective first flights.

After accomplishing all the rendezvous tasks, Dragon will then receive approval to begin the COTS 3 activities, gradually approaching the ISS from below to within a few meters.

Specially trained astronauts working in the Cupola will then reach out and grapple Dragon with the Station’s robotic arm and then maneuver it carefully into place onto the Earth-facing side of the Harmony node. The operations are expected to take several hours.

The COTS Demo 2/3 Dragon spacecraft at Cape Canaveral. Photo: SpaceX

If successful, the Feb. 7 SpaceX demonstration flight will become the first commercial mission to visit the ISS and vindicate the advocates of commercial space transportation who contend that allowing private companies to compete for contracts to provide cargo delivery services to the ISS will result in dramatically reduced costs and risks and increased efficiencies.

The new commercial paradigm would also thereby allow NASA to focus more of its scarce funds on research activities to come up with the next breakthroughs enabling bolder missions to deep space.

If the flight fails, then the future of the ISS could be in serious jeopardy in the medium to long term because there would not be sufficient alternative launch cargo capacity to maintain the research and living requirements for a full crew complement of six residents aboard the orbiting laboratory.

Feb. 7 represents nothing less than ‘High Stakes on the High Frontier’.

NASA is all about bold objectives in space exploration in both the manned and robotic arenas – and that’s perfectly represented by the agencies huge gamble with the commercial cargo and commercial crew initiatives.

NASA Issues Report On Commercial Crew as SpaceX’s CEO Testifies About SpaceX’s Progress

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NASA has recently posted the latest update as to how the Commercial Crew Development 2 (CCDev2) program is doing in terms of meeting milestones laid out at the program’s inception. According to the third status report that was released by NASA, CCDev2’s partners continue to meet these objectives. The space agency has worked to provide regular updates about the program’s progress.

“There is a lot happening in NASA’s commercial crew and cargo programs and we want to make sure the public and our stakeholders are informed about the progress industry is making,” said Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight development. “It’s exciting to see these spaceflight concepts move forward.”

One of the primary objectives of the Commercial Crew Development program is to cut down the length of time that NASA is forced to rely on Russia for access to the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA

Reports on the progress of commercial crew are issued on a bi-monthly basis. The reports are directed toward the primary stakeholder of this program, the U.S. taxpayer. NASA has invested both financial and technical assets in an effort to accelerate the development of commercial access to orbit.

This report came out at the same time as Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) CEO, Elon Musk, testified before the U.S. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee regarding NASA’s commercial crewed program.

Elon Musk testified before the U.S. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee regarding his company's efforts to provide commercial access to the International Space Station. Photo Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX itself has been awarded $75 million under the CCDev program to develop a launch abort system, known as “DragonRider” that would enable the company’s Dragon spacecraft to transport astronauts. SpaceX was awarded $1.6 billion under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services or COTS contract with NASA. Under the COTS contract, SpaceX must fly three demonstration flights as well as nine cargo delivery flights to the orbiting outpost. SpaceX is currently working to combine the second and third demonstration flights into one mission, currently scheduled to fly at the end of this year.

During Musk’s comments to the House, he highlighted his company’s efforts to make space travel more accessible.

“America’s endeavors in space are truly inspirational. I deeply believe that human spaceflight is one of the great achievements of humankind. Although NASA only sent a handful of people to the moon, it felt like we all went,” Musk said in a written statement. “We vicariously shared in the adventure and achievement. My goal, and the goal of SpaceX, is to help create the technology so that more can share in that great adventure.”

SpaceX's Falcon 9 launch vehicle is currently being readied for a liftoff date later this year. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

To date, SpaceX is the only company to have demonstrated the capacity of their launch vehicle as well as a spacecraft. The company launched the first of its Dragon spacecraft atop of its Falcon 9 rocket this past December. The Dragon completed two orbits successfully before splashing down safely off the coast of California.

NASA is relying on companies like SpaceX to develop commercial crew transportation capabilities that could one day send astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). It is hoped that CCDev2 will help reduce U.S. dependence on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for access to the ISS. Allowing commercial companies to take over the responsibility of sending crews to the ISS might also allow the space agency focus on sending astronauts beyond low-Earth-orbit for the first time in four decades.

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft recently arrived at the firm's hangar located at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex-40 (SLC-40). Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

Here There Be Dragons: SpaceX’s Spacecraft Arrives at Launch Complex 40

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) welcomed a new guest to Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) on Sunday – the next Dragon spacecraft that is set to launch later this year. Members of the media were invited to a photo opportunity to chronicle the Dragon spacecraft’s arrival which had been delayed a day due to issues with travel permits.

The Dragon that arrived on Sunday is destined to fly to the International Space Station (ISS). It will be the first time that a private firm docks with the space station. The COTS Demo 2 Dragon was shipped from SpaceX’s facilities in Hawthorne, California to Cape Canaveral in Florida.

SpaceX's next Dragon spacecraft, the one set to fly to the International Space Station, was delivered to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 40 on Sunday. Photo Credit: SpaceX

The Falcon 9 rocket, with its Dragon spacecraft payload, is currently scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s SLC-40 on Dec. 19. If all goes as it is currently planned the Dragon will maneuver along side of the orbiting laboratory where the space station’s robot Canadarm 2 will grapple the unmanned spacecraft it and dock it with the station.

“When it comes to the launch day, NASA will determine that, we’re pushing to launch on Dec. 19, but the final “go” date is set by NASA and the range,” said SpaceX’s Vice-President for Communications Bobby Block. “We are currently working to conduct a wet dress rehearsal on November 21st.”

The Dragon spacecraft that is bound for the ISS will ride this Falcon 9 rocket to orbit. The launch date is tentatively set for Dec. 19. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

SpaceX recently passed a Preliminary Draft Review (PDR) of the Dragon’s Launch Abort System (LAS). This system, which pulls astronauts and their spacecraft to safety in case of some problem with the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, is unlike other systems of its type. Normal abort systems are essentially small rockets affixed to the top of the spacecraft (which is normally on top of the rocket). Not so with SpaceX’s design, dubbed DragonRider – it will be built into the walls of the spacecraft.

The reason for the difference in the abort system’s design is twofold. First, it will drive the costs down (Dragon is being developed as a reusable spacecraft) -whereas traditional abort systems are not capable of being reused. Secondly the system could one day be used as a potential means of landing spacecraft on other terrestrial worlds, such as the planet Mars.

SpaceX has been working with NASA to get the Dragon spacecraft ready for its historic mission. This will mark the first time that many of the systems have been used on an actual mission. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

This will mark the second demonstration flight that SpaceX will have flown to accomplish the objectives laid out in the Commercial Orbital Transportations Services or COTS contract. The $1.6 billion contract is an effort to ensure that needed cargo is delivered to the station safely and in a timely fashion.

SpaceX so far has launched two of its Falcon 9 rockets – both in 2010. The first flight occurred on June 4, 2010 with the second being launched on Dec. 8, 2010. It was on this second flight that SpaceX became the first private entity to launch a spacecraft into orbit and then safely recover it after it had successfully orbited the Earth twice. Before this only nations were capable of achieving this feat.

“This is very exciting, our last launch was about a year ago, so to have a fully-operational Dragon up-and-ready to make a historic docking to the International Space Station it’s terrifically exciting.” Block said.

SpaceX is working toward expanding the role of not only the Falcon 9 rocket - but the Dragon spacecraft as well. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser to Conduct Drop Test Next Summer

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It looks as though the efforts to get commercial space taxis off the ground – is succeeding. Sierra Nevada Corporation’s (SNC) “Dream Chaser” space plane is slated to conduct its first test flight as early as next summer. SNC is one of four companies that have had proposals selected by NASA under the Commercial Crew Development Program – 02 (CCDev2).

The test flight, what is known as a high-altitude free-flight test or “drop-test” will see Dream Chaser lifted high into the air, where the craft will then be released from its carrier aircraft and attempt an unmanned landing. During the course of this flight test program SNC will test out the space plane’s autoland and other capabilities.

The Dream Chaser space plane is derived from the HL-20 lifting body developed by NASA. Photo Credit: SNC

“Sierra Nevada Space Systems is honored to be awarded an additional $25.6 million by NASA as part of the second round of the Commercial Crew Development Program (CCDev2), bringing the total award to $105.6 million for this round of the competition,” said Mark Sirangelo, head of Sierra Nevada Space Systems. “As part of CCDev2, the Program has already completed four of the planned milestones, on time and on budget. The now thirteen CCDev2 milestones will culminate in a high-altitude free-flight test of our vehicle in the summer of 2012. ”

With NASA’s fleet of orbiters retired and being prepared to go on display in museums, NASA is dependent on the Russian Soyuz for access to the International Space Station (ISS). NASA currently pays Russia $63 million per seat for trips to the orbiting laboratory.

If all goes according to plan, the Dream Chaser could be one of many 'space-taxis' that would supply transportation services to the International Space Station. Image Credit: SNC

Many within both NewSpace and established space companies have stated their intent on reducing the amount of time that the U.S. is in such a position. NASA also has worked to assist companies that are working on CCDev2 to either meet or exceed their deadlines.
NASA is hopeful that these developments will allow the space agency to turn over transportation to the ISS to commercial firms by 2016.

In the case of SNC, NASA increased what the company was paid by an added $25.6 million. SNC had already been awarded $80 million as their part of the CCDev2 contract. After this boost in funding, SNC announced that the drop test would be held next summer.
The Dream Chaser design is based primarily off of the HL-20 lifting body design and is capable of carrying seven astronauts to orbit. Dream Chaser is designed to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station located in Florida atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 402.

Sierra Nevada Corporation is working steadily to test out and prove the Dream Chaser's various systems. Photo Credit: SNC

If everything goes according to how it is currently planned, the test flight will take place at either Edwards Air Force Base, located in California or White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo will carry the Dream Chaser space plane aloft for the test. Virgin Galactic, another NewSpace firm, is based in the U.S. and owned by Sir Richard Branson.

The ISS is viewed by the U.S, and the 15 other nations involved with the project as a crucial investment and having only one way to send crew to and from the ISS as being unacceptable. Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser is joined by Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) Dragon spacecraft, Boeing’s CST-100 and Blue Origin’s as-yet unnamed spacecraft in the CCDev2 contract.

The Dream Chaser space plane atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Image Credit: SNC

SpaceX: Next Dragon to Launch No-Earlier-Than Dec. 19

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – The launch date of the next Falcon 9 rocket with its Dragon Spacecraft payload has been announced to occur no-earlier-than Dec. 19. This will mean that it will have been over a year since the last time that the NewSpace firm launched one of its rockets.

“NASA is working with SpaceX on our technical and safety data for this mission while coordinating with its international partners to sort out a launch schedule once a definitive decision is reached on the next Soyuz flight to the International Space Station. As a result, we’ve submitted December 19th to NASA and the Air Force as the first in a range of dates that we would be ready to launch,” said Kirstin Brost Grantham SpaceX’s Communications Director. “We recognize that a target launch date cannot be set until NASA gives us the green light as well as the partners involved in the International Space Station program make a decision on when to continue Soyuz flights. Our flight is one of many that have to be carefully coordinated, so the ultimate schedule of launches to the ISS is still under consideration.”

At a speech at the National Press Club on Thursday, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk also confirmed that the flight of Dragon will likely be delayed — perhaps until January — due to the failure of a Soyuz rocket carrying a Progress re-supply ship to the ISS on August 24, 2011.

“It actually will likely result in a delay to our launch to the ISS,” Musk said, “and NASA rightly wants to have the appropriate level of astronauts with the right training when we arrive, so it looks like January for the launch to space station, and that is contingent upon the Russians meeting the schedule they’ve currently stating.”

The Russian Space Agency has scheduled Progress launches on October 30, 2011, and January 26, 2012, with potential launches for the manned Soyuz-FG spacecraft on November 12 and December 20, 2011.

SpaceX's last launch of a Falcon 9 rocket, seen here, was on Dec. 8 and carried the first of the firm's Dragon spacecraft to orbit: Photo Credit: Alan walters/awaltersphoto.com

SpaceX last launched one of its Falcon 9 rockets on Dec. 8 of last year. That launch saw the first flight of the company’s Dragon Spacecraft, which completed two orbits before splashing safely down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. This event marked the first time that a private entity had accomplished this feat. Up until that time only nations had sent and retrieved spacecraft from orbit.

Also during Musk’s speech on Sept. 29, he announced that SpaceX is developing the world’s first, fully-reusable rocket. Musk said that the development of this as-yet-unnamed rocket, if successful, would greatly reduce the cost of launching to orbit and open the doors to manned flights to Mars. But the SpaceX CEO cautioned that success was not guaranteed.

With the space shuttle fleet retired and being prepared for display in museums and tourist attractions, NASA is relying on many proposed commercial space taxis that, unlike the Dragon which has flown, have yet to be tested. Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Orbital Sciences Corporation all have proposed designs to ferry astronauts to and from low-Earth-orbit and the International Space Station.