Incredible Dragon Approach and Berthing – Image Gallery from Andre Kuipers aboard ISS


On Friday, May 25, astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) made space history when they deftly reached out with the stations robotic arm and grabbed the approaching SpaceX Dragon resupply carrier and then parked the first ever commercial cargo craft at an open port on the massive lab complex while orbiting some 407 kilometers (253 miles) above Earth – check out the gallery here !

Working in tandem, NASA astronaut Don Pettit and ESA astronaut Andre Kuipers snared the Dragon craft as it was drifting in free space about 10 m (32 ft) away with the 18 m (58 ft) long Canadian robot arm at 9:56 a.m. EDT and connected the first privately built capsule to a parking spot on the Earth-facing side of the Harmony Node 2 module on the ISS at 12:02 p.m. EDT on May 25.

Dragon over the Rocky Mountains. Credit: Andre Kuipers/ESA/NASA

Here’s a gallery of images from Andre Kuipers showing the Dragon’s rendezvous, grappling and docking at the million pound Earth orbiting space station currently inhabited by a crew of 6 astronauts and cosmonauts working as a united team from the US, Russia and the Netherlands and representing humanities tenuous foothold at the High Frontier.

All these photos were taken on May 25, 2012 using a Nikon D2Xs.

The crew ‘Entered the Dragon’ for the first time on Saturday, May 26.

Over the next few days, the crew will unload the living provisions, supplies and equipment loaded aboard the Dragon capsule and then refill it with science samples and trash for the return trip to Earth.

Dragon will undock from the ISS on May 31 and splash down hours later off the coast of California in the Pacific Ocean.

And through May 31, you can spot and photograph the Dragon/ISS combo orbiting overhead – read my article here for further details.

Approach to 10 metres. Credit: Andre Kuipers/ESA/NASA
Manoeuvring Dragon to the docking port. Credit: Andre Kuipers/ESA/NASA
Like this it looks a bit like a model from a 70's sci-fi film. Credit: Andre Kuipers/ESA/NASA
Dragon and Earth. Credit: Andre Kuipers/ESA/NASA
Teamwork in the Cupola during Dragon approach - Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers. Credit: ESA/NASA

Dragon is the world’s first commercial resupply vehicle. It was launched flawlessly atop a SpaceX built Falcon 9 booster on May 22 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Ken Kremer

Spot the New Space Era as ISS & Dragon Streak Across the Sky – This Week Only !


This week and this week only you can see the dawn of the new Commercial Space Era with your own eyes – it’s soaring above your head a mere 400 kilometers (250 miles) away. All you have to do is a quick search, hope for clear skies and traipse outside.

Following the historic attachment of the maiden commercial Dragon cargo carrier to the Harmony node on the International Space Station (ISS) on May 25, the massive orbiting laboratory will be shining just a little bit brighter and prouder as it steaks overhead across the sky at 17,500 MPH (32140 KPH).

Dragon and ISS are literally trailblazing the pathway to the new Commercial Space Era for all to see.

So, for a limited time only between right now and the scheduled May 31 undocking of the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft from the ISS there will be occasional viewing opportunities to catch the dynamic duo speeding merrily across the night time sky.

And the station crew of 6 astronauts and cosmonauts living aboard just opened the hatch from the ISS and “Entered the Dragon” earlier today, May 26 – To make it even more special !

Many folks have never seen an ISS flyover and I can’t think of a better time than now to get started. I’ve held several ISS Sighting star parties in different US States and everyone is thrilled and amazed at how bright the ISS shines – In fact it’s the brightest object in the night sky other than the Sun and the Moon.

Docked Commercial SpaceX Dragon and International Space Station (ISS) streak across the pre dawn sky at 4:07 AM EDT near Princeton, NJ on May 26, 2012, less than 24 hours after the Dragon was attached to the Harmony node. 25 sec exposure. Credit: Ken Kremer

To determine if there are any favorable sighting opportunities in your area, check out the NASA website on Human Spaceflight Sighting Opportunities – here – for a detailed listing of the precise times, elevations, direction and durations. It’s an easy to use viewing guide. Just plug in the particulars of the country in which you live

Another great source is Heaven’s Above – here

ISS streaks over Florida skies at a star party for space enthusiasts around the KSC Quality Inn days prior to SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon blastoff. Credit: Ken Kremer/

Last night I shot some time lapse astrophotos (above) when the gloomy New Jersey clouds finally cleared using a digital SLR and exposure times of 20 to 30 seconds.

Read my eyewitness account of the spectacular pre-dawn May 19 launch of the Dragon resupply vehicle atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida here and the docking here

Now – Go Spot the Dragon and the Station !

and send Ken your blazing Astrophotos to post at Universe Today

Happy Viewing and Clear Skies

Ken Kremer

Station Astronauts Enter the Dragon – First Private Capsule at ISS


For the first time in history space station astronauts have ‘Entered the Dragon’ .. The 1st Private Capsule in Space !

The hatches between the newly arrived Dragon private capsule and the International Space Station’s Harmony Node 2 module were opened at 5:53 a.m. EDT (0953 GMT) today, Saturday, May 26 as the massive complex was flying 407 kilometers (253 miles) over the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand, just west of Auckland.

NASA astronaut Don Pettit had the honors of opening the hatch to the history making first commercial spacecraft to dock at the ISS and begin a busy few days of unloading gear and supplies.

Clearly the crew was eager for the momentous moment because Pettit and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, Station Commander floated into Dragon nearly two hours ahead of schedule for the initial inspections.

NASA Astronuat Don Pettit opens hatch to Dragon from Harmony node module on May 26, 2012

Dragon is the first private spacecraft ever to journey and connect to the International Space Station and marked a milestone event in space history when it arrived yesterday morning on May 25. Dragon is the world’s first commercial resupply vehicle and was built by SpaceX Corporation based in Hawthorne, Calif., founded by CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk.

Dragon berthed at the International Space Station. NASA TV

As a routine precaution to guard against possible contamination and floating debris, Pettit and Kononenko wore protective eye goggles and dust masks over their mouths as they floated and somersaulted playfully through the hatch and all looked in ship shape. They took off the protective gear about 20 minutes later after the air had been well mixed and receiving the all clear from Houston Mission Control.

“There was no sign of any kind of FOD (foreign object debris) floating around in the atmosphere inside,” Pettit reported to Houston upon entering the Dragon. “It kind of reminds me of the cargo capability that I could put in the back of my pickup truck, and the smell inside smells like a brand new car.”

NASA Astronaut Don Pettit inside Dragon on May 26, 2012

Barely 21 hours ago yesterday morning Pettit snared the Dragon as it was drifting free in space about 10 meters (30 ft) away using the stations 18 m (58 ft) long Canadian-built robotic arm. ESA Astronaut Andre Kuiper then parked Dragon at an open port on the Harmony node. The arm will remain grappled to Dragon throughout most of its docked time.

Docked Dragon viewed from the Cupola Observation Dome aboard ISS. NASA TV
It will take about 20 to 25 hours to unload the cargo on Dragon over the next few days before it is scheduled to undock and depart on May 31.

Dragon is a resupply ship meant to replace some of the cargo duties – both up mass and down mass – fully lost with the forced retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle fleet last year. It is the first American built spacecraft of any kind to visit the ISS since the departure of the final Shuttle mission STS-135 in July 2011.

Dragon grappled with Earth backdrop. NASA TV

The Dragon was packed with 460 kilograms (1014 lbs) of non-critical cargo including 306 kg (674 lbs) of food and crew provisions; 21 kg (46 lbs)of science experiment; 123 kg (271 lbs) prepositioned cargo bags to be used for future flights; and 10 kg (22 lbs) of assorted computer supplies and a laptop.

The vehicle will be refilled with more than 1400 pounds of science samples, trash and unneeded gear for the trip back home. Dragon is the only ISS cargo resupply vessel that has any significant return to Earth capability since it is equipped with parachutes and a heat shield, unlike the ATV, HTV and Cygnus which burn up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

“Dragon is really the main means of carrying cargo back from the space station,” said Elon Musk at a post docking media briefing.

First look inside the Dragon spacecraft, currently attached to the International Space Station. Credit: SpaceX

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 could launch as soon as September.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket clears the tower after liftoff at 3:44 a.m. on May 22, 2012 from Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.,on the first commercial mission to loft the Dragon cargo resupply vehicle to the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer/

The Dragon was blasted to space atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Cape Canaveral, Florida on this historic test flight on May 22, 2012 and linked up with the ISS on Flight Day 4 on May 25.

Ken Kremer

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


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/

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/

Ken Kremer

How to Capture a Dragon in Space


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


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


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.

Revolutionary Air-Launched Commercial Rocket to Orbit Announced by Microsoft Billionaire Paul Allen


A mega quartet of luminaries led by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen and legendary aerospace designer Burt Rutan have joined forces to create a revolutionary new approach to space travel. This new privately funded venture entails the development of a mammoth air-launched space transportation system that aims to dramatically cut the high costs and risks of launching both cargo and human crews to low Earth orbit.

Allen and Rutan are teaming up with Elon Musk, founder of Space Exploration Technologies Corp, or SpaceX, and Michael Griffin, former NASA Administrator, to build the world’s largest aircraft ever flown and use it as a platform to loft a multi-stage SpaceX rocket that will deliver a payload of some 13,500 pounds into earth orbit, about the same class as a Delta II.

Allen and Rutan hope to build upon the spaceflight revolution that they pioneered with the suborbital SpaceShipOne in 2004, which was the first privately funded spaceship to reach the edge of space, and now take the critical next step and actually vault all the way to orbit.

Video Caption: Stratolaunch Systems is pioneering innovative solutions to revolutionize space transportation to orbit.

To accomplish this innovative leap, Allen and Rutan, announced the formation of a new company, funded by Allen, called Stratolaunch Systems at a press briefing today, Dec. 13, held in Seattle, WA. Allen is a billionaire and philanthropist who has funded a host of projects to advance science,

“Our national aspirations for space exploration have been receding,” Allen lamented at the start of the briefing. “This year saw the end of NASA’s space shuttle program. Constellation, which would have taken us back to the moon, has been mothballed as well. For the first time since John Glenn, America cannot fly its own astronauts into space.”

“With government funded spaceflight diminishing, there’s a much expanded opportunity for privately funded efforts.”

Rutan said that Stratolaunch will build a 1.2 million pound carrier aircraft sporting a wingspan of 385 feet – longer than a football field – and which will be powered by six 747 engines on takeoff. The carrier will be a twin fuselage vehicle, like the WhiteKnight developed by Rutan to launch SpaceShipOne.

Air launch of SpaceX rocket to orbit

The 120 foot long SpaceX rocket, weighing up to 490,000 pounds, will be slung in between and dropped at an altitude of about 30,000 feet for the remaining ascent to orbit.

SpaceX will construct a shorter, less powerful version of the firms existing Falcon 9 rocket, which may be either a Falcon 4 or Falcon 5 depending on specifications.

The new launch system will operate from a large airport or spaceport like the Kennedy Space Center, require a 12,000 feet long runway for takeoff and landing and be capable of flying up to 1,300 nautical miles to the payload’s launch point. Crews aboard the huge carrier aircraft will also conduct the countdown and firing of the booster and will monitor payload blasting to orbit.

“I have long dreamed about taking the next big step in private space flight after the success of SpaceShipOne – to offer a flexible, orbital space delivery system,” Allen said. “We are at the dawn of radical change in the space launch industry. Stratolaunch Systems is pioneering an innovative solution that will revolutionize space travel.”

The goal of Stratolaunch is to “bring airport-like operations to the launch of commercial and government payloads and, eventually, human missions,” according to a company statement.

Plans call for a first orbital flight within five years by around 2016. Test flights could begin around 2015.

“We believe this technology has the potential to someday make spaceflight routine by removing many of the constraints associated with ground launched rockets,” said Mike Griffin. “Our system will also provide the flexibility to launch from a large variety of locations.”

Mike Griffin added that the venture is aiming for the small to medium class payload market similar to what has been served by the venerable Delta II rocket, which is now being retired after decades of service.

“NASA’s science satellites could also be lofted by Stratolaunch.”

“At some point this vehicle could loft a crew of say six people,” Griffin stated.

“This is an exciting day,” concluded Allen.

“Stratolaunch will keep America at the forefront of space exploration and give tomorrow’s children something to search for in the night sky and dream about. Work has already started on our project at the Mojave Spaceport.”

SpaceX Dragon cargo spaceship propels commercial and science payloads to orbit following air-launch from gigantic carrier aircraft. Credit: Stratolaunch Systems