Antares Commercial Rocket Reaches New Atlantic Coast Launch Pad

Image Caption: Antares Rocket At Wallops Flight Facility Launch Pad. Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares rocket at the launch pad at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. In a few months, Antares is scheduled to launch a cargo delivery demonstration mission to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Credit: NASA

At long last, Orbital Sciences Corporation has rolled their new commercially developed Antares medium class rocket to the nation’s newest spaceport – the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops Island,Va – and commenced on pad operations as of Monday, Oct 1.

The long awaited rollout marks a key milestone on the path to the maiden test flight of the Antares, planned to blast off before year’s end if all goes well.

This is a highly noteworthy event because Antares is the launcher for Orbital’s unmanned commercial Cygnus cargo spacecraft that NASA’s hopes will reestablish resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS) lost with the shuttle’s shutdown.

“MARS has completed construction and testing operations on its launch complex at Wallops Island, the first all-new large-scale liquid-fuel launch site to be built in the U.S. in decades,” said David W. Thompson, Orbital’s President and Chief Executive Officer.

“Accordingly, our pad operations are commencing immediately in preparation for an important series of ground and flight tests of our Antares medium-class launch vehicle over the next few months. In fact, earlier today (Oct. 1), an Antares first stage test article was transported to the pad from its final assembly building about a mile away, marking the beginning of full pad operations.”

Antares 1st stage rocket erected at Launch Pad 0-A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: NASA

In about 4 to 6 weeks, Orbital plans to conduct a 30 second long hot fire test of the first stage, generating a total thrust of 680,000 lbs. If successful, a full up test flight of the 131 foot tall Antares with a Cygnus mass simulator bolted on top is planned for roughly a month later.

An ISS docking demonstration mission to the ISS would then occur early in 2013 which would be nearly identical in scope to the SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon demonstration flight successfully launched and accomplished in May 2012.

The first commercial resupply mission to the ISS by SpaceX (CRS-1) is now set to lift off on Oct. 7 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The 700,000 lb thrust Antares first stage is powered by a pair of Soviet era NK-33 engines built during the 1960 and 1970’s as part of Russia’s ill-fated N-1 manned moon program. The engines have since been upgraded and requalified by Aerojet Corp. and integrated into the Ukrainian built first stage rocket as AJ-26 engines.

Image Caption: Antares first stage arrives on the pad at NASA_Wallops on Oct. 1. First stage approaching adapter ring on the right. Credit: NASA

NASA awarded contracts to Orbital Sciences Corp and SpaceX in 2008 to develop unmanned commercial resupply systems with the goal of recreating an American capability to deliver cargo to the ISS which completely evaporated following the forced retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiters in 2011 with no follow on program ready to go.

“Today’s (Oct. 1) rollout of Orbital’s Antares test vehicle and the upcoming SpaceX mission are significant milestones in our effort to return space station resupply activities to the United States and insource the jobs associated with this important work,” said NASA Associate Administrator for Communications David Weaver. “NASA’s commercial space program is helping to ensure American companies launch our astronauts and their supplies from U.S. soil.”

The public will be invited to watch the Antares blastoff and there are a lot of locations for spectators to gather nearby for an up close and personal experience.

“Antares is the biggest rocket ever launched from Wallops,” NASA Wallops spokesman Keith Koehler told me. “The launches will definitely be publicized.”

Ken Kremer

NASA Announces Winners in Commercial Crew Funding; Which Company Will Get to Space First?

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NASA announced today the winners of the third round of commercial crew development funding, called the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap). This will ultimately allow commercial space companies to be able to provide commercial human spaceflight services for both NASA and other commercial customers. The winners are SpaceX ($440 million), Boeing ($460 million) and Sierra Nevada Corporation ($212.5 million). NASA said these awards will enable a launch of astronauts from U.S. soil in the next five years.

NASA’s Ed Mango said that the differences in the amount each company received was not a difference of two companies getting “full” awards and one getting a half award, but each company negotiated how much work they could get done in the 21-month period that this award covers.

NASA wants to have at least one commercial company able to bring astronauts to and from the International Space Station by 2017, but the three winning companies said they can either meet or beat that deadline, with optimal funding.

During conference calls with reporters, SpaceX’s Elon Musk said his company is shooting for a demonstration flight in mid-2015, with the anticipated Boeing says it can do crewed test flight in late 2016, assuming optimal funding, and Sierra Nevada said they will likely start their operations in 2016 or 2017.

Musk said the cost of getting to first crewed SpaceX flight to ISS would be about $1 billion. The first orbital demo crewed flight probably wouldn’t go to the space station, but would on a subsequent flight, about a year later.

SpaceX is well ahead of the other two companies because of their work – and success – with the unmanned Dragon capsule, which traveled to and from the ISS earlier this year, and was the first commercial spacecraft to be berthed to the Station. For the most part, SpaceX has paid their own way during the development of Dragon and their crewed version, the 7-passenger DragonRider, spending about $300 million of their own money in addition to about $75 million from NASA.

The plans for DragonRider have it making its return landing in the ocean, but SpaceX has completed the development of the SuperDraco thruster, which will mainly be used as a launch abort system but also allow for powered landings on land.

Boeing’s CST-100 capsule, also capable of carrying a crew of seven, has met many milestones, such as drop tests and parachute tests. Like Dragon, the spacecraft will initially land in the ocean, but the company hopes to allow for land-based landings later on. It will launch on an Atlas V rocket.

Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser spacecraft, perhaps the most fascinating of the trio of commercial spacecraft, looks like a mini-space shuttle, and comes from the line of NASA experimental vehicles, the HL-20. It can serve as both a transport vehicle and a rescue vehicle from the ISS, and has the capability to land at almost any commercial airport within six hours of leaving the ISS. Dream Chaser will also launch on an Atlas V.

Caption: NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Ed Mango discusses the agency’s new Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) partnerships from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Kennedy’s Director Bob Cabana, left, and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden also spoke about the CCiCap initiative during Friday’s news conference. Image credit: NASA

“Today, we are announcing another critical step toward launching our astronauts from U.S. soil on space systems built by American companies,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “We have selected three companies that will help keep us on track to end the outsourcing of human spaceflight and create high-paying jobs in Florida and elsewhere across the country.”

The Commercial Crew Program is a competitive program where commercial companies develop and build vehicles to meet NASA’s requirements, and when fixed milestones are met, NASA provides funding.

NASA says the objective of the CCP is to facilitate the development of a U.S. commercial crew space transportation capability with the goal of achieving safe, reliable and cost-effective access to and from the International Space Station and low Earth orbit.

“For 50 years American industry has helped NASA push boundaries, enabling us to live, work and learn in the unique environment of microgravity and low Earth orbit,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. “The benefits to humanity from these endeavors are incalculable. We’re counting on the creativity of industry to provide the next generation of transportation to low Earth orbit and expand human presence, making space accessible and open for business.”

Of course, NASA is also working to develop the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) and the Space Launch System (SLS), a crew capsule and heavy-lift rocket to provide transportation to distant destinations like the Moon, asteroids or ultimately Mars.

For more details on the program see: http://www.nasa.gov/offices/c3po/home/

Historic SpaceX Dragon Docking to ISS – Highlights Video

SpaceX has released a cool video (above) recapping the mission highlights of the historic May 22 blastoff of the firm’s Falcon 9 rocket with the Dragon spacecraft that went on to become the first privately developed vehicle in history to successfully dock to the International Space Station (ISS) on May 25, 2012.

Dragon was captured with a robotic arm operated by astronauts Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers working in tandem aboard the ISS as it approached the massive orbiting lab complex and was then berthed at an Earth facing port.

Dragon was the first US spacecraft to attach to the ISS since the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle program last July 2011 following the STS-135 mission of shuttle Atlantis. The 14.4 ft (4.4 meter) long resupply vehicle delivered over 1000 pounds of non-critical gear, food, clothing and science equipment to the ISS.

After spending six days at the ISS, the Dragon undocked and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean some 560 miles off the coast of California on May 31, 2012.

Image Caption: 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/www.kenkremer.com

The Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo carrier were designed, developed and built by Hawthorne, Calif., based SpaceX Corporation, founded in 2002 by CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk.

SpaceX signed a contract with NASA in 2006 to conduct twelve 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 CRS mission is slated to blast off around October 2012.

Read my Universe Today articles starting here for further details about the historic SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon mission to the ISS.

Ken Kremer

Awesome Video of a Dragon’s Descent!


Just in from SpaceX and NASA, here’s a video of the descent of the Dragon capsule on the morning of May 31, 2012.

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Taken from a chase plane, the footage shows the spacecraft’s dramatic chute deployment and splashdown into the Pacific at 8:42 a.m. PT, approximately 560 miles southwest off the coast of Los Angeles. The event marked the end of a successful and historic mission that heralds a new era of commercial spaceflight in the U.S.

Read more about the completion of the first Dragon mission here.

Video: NASA

Dragon’s Ocean Splashdown Caps Historic Opening of New Space Era

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Concluding a perfectly executed and history making test flight, the first private spacecraft ever to visit and dock at the International Space Station (ISS) performed a picture perfect splashdown at 11:42 a.m. EDT (1542 GMT) today, May 31, in the Pacific Ocean, off the west coast of Baja, California, some 560 miles southwest of Los Angeles to cap the opening to a historic new Era in Space Exploration.

Dragon is the linchpin in NASA’s bold Commercial Crew and Cargo program aimed at significantly driving 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 setting of the new, post-shuttle Era of Commercial Space Transportation.

NASA aircraft were able to transmit live video of the last few minutes of the Dragon’s breathtaking descent, unfurling of the trio of parachutes and ocean splashdown – pretty much on target at 27 degrees latitude and 127 degrees west longitude.

The official mission elapsed time on landing was 9 days, 7 hours and 58 minutes.

Splashdown of the Dragon cargo craft took place barely 6 hours after departing the orbiting lab complex following detachment from the station using the station robotic arm. The ISS astronauts released the craft from the grip of the station’s robot arm at 5:49 a.m. EST (949 GMT) this morning, May 31.

Screen shot of Dragon after May 31 splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: NASA TV

The two spacecraft were soaring some 250 miles (400 km) high above the Indian Ocean east of Africa at the moment of release and departure. Altogether, Dragon spent 5 days, 16 hours and 5 minutes mated to the station.

The gumdrop shaped Dragon capsule is 4.4 meters (14.4 ft) tall, and 3.66 m (12 ft) in diameter and has an internal pressurized volume of about 350 cubic feet .

The Dragon cargo resupply capsule was built by SpaceX and is being retrieved from the ocean by a flotilla of three recovery ships. The ships reached Dragon, detached the chutes and are in the process of recovery. It will take about two days to deliver the craft to the port of Los Angeles where the most critical cargo items will be removed for quick shipment to NASA. The capsule will then be shipped to SpaceX’s McGregor,Texas facility for post-flight evaluation.

Dragon is the world’s first commercial spacecraft whose purpose is to carry supplies to and from the ISS and partially replace the cargo capabilities previously performed by NASA’s now retired fleet of space shuttle orbiters. Dragon was designed, developed and built by Hawthorne, Calif., based SpaceX Corporation, founded in 2002 by CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk.

“This has been a fantastic day,” said Musk at a post splashdown briefing for reporters. “I want to thank NASA and the whole SpaceX team for an amazing job.”

“I’m really proud of everyone. This really couldn’t have gone better. We’re looking forward to doing lots more missions in the future and continuing to upgrade the technology and push the frontier of space transportation.”

“In baseball terminology this would be a grand slam. I am overwhelmed with joy.”

The de-orbit burn to drop Dragon out of orbit took place precisely on time at 10:51 a.m. EDT for a change in velocity of 100 m/sec about 246 miles above the Indian Ocean directly to the south of India as the craft was some 200 miles in front of the ISS.

Screen shot of Dragon after May 31 splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: NASA TV

The Draco thruster firing lasted 9 minutes and 50 seconds and sent Dragon plummeting through the Earth’s atmosphere where it had to survive extreme temperatures exceeding 3000 degrees F (1600 degrees C) before landing.

The Dragon capsule is the first US vehicle of any kind to arrive at the ISS since the July 2011 forced retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program resulted in the total loss of all US capability to send cargo and humans crews to the massive orbiting outpost.

SpaceX signed a contract with NASA in 2006 to conduct twelve 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.

This was the third test flight of the Falcon 9 rocket and the first test flight of the Dragon in this vastly upgraded configuration with solar panels. A future variant of Dragon will eventually blast US astronauts to space and restore US crew capability – perhaps by 2017 thanks to repeated cuts to NASA’s budget.

Only four entities have ever sent a spacecraft to dock at the ISS – the United States, Russia, Japan and the European Union. SpaceX is the first commercial entity to accomplish the same feat.

The precedent setting Dragon mission has opened a new era in spaceflight by giving birth to the first fully commercial mission to the orbiting space station complex and unlocking vast new possibilities for its utilization in science and exploration.

On May 22, Dragon thundered to orbit atop a SpaceX built Falcon 9 rocket during a pre-dawn liftoff at 3:44 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex-40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

After a three day chase, Dragon arrived at the ISS on May 25 and was deftly berthed at an open Earth-facing port on the Harmony Node 2 module after being dramatically captured by the astronaut crew using the station’s robotic arm in a landmark event in space history as the Dragon and the ISS were passing about 251 miles above Earth. Capture was confirmed at a mission elapsed time of 3 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes and 23 seconds.

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 parked the first privately built capsule to an open port at 12:02 p.m. EDT on May 25.

The astronauts opened the hatch and ‘Entered the Dragon’ for the first time a day later on May 26 and then proceeded to unload the stowed cargo and refill it for the return trip to Earth.

On this first NASA sponsored Dragon test flight to rendezvous and dock at the ISS, the cargo craft 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.

Dragon splashed down successfully on May 31, 2012 at 11:42 a.m. EDT in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of California. In a carefully timed sequence of events, dual drogue parachutes deployed at 45,000 feet to stabilize and slow the spacecraft. Full deployment of the drogues triggers the release of the main parachutes, each 116 feet in diameter, at about 10,000 feet, with the drogues detaching from the spacecraft. Main parachutes further slow the spacecraft's descent to approximately 16 to 18 feet per second.

Unlike the other Russian, European and Japanese cargo freighters that service the ISS and then disintegrate on reentry, the SpaceX Dragon is uniquely equipped with a state of the art PICA-X heat shield that allows it to plunge safely through the Earth’s atmosphere and survive the fiery temperatures exceeding more than 3000 degrees F (1600 degrees C).

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. The Dragon mission was a resounding success from launch to splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on May 31 at 11:42 a.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com

The down mass capability restores another critical capability lost with the forced retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiters in July 2011. The astronauts filled Dragon with about 620 kilograms (1367 pounds) of science experiments, trash and non-critical items on this historic test flight.

The first operational Dragon resupply mission to the ISS could blast off as early as September, said Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program.

“We’ll await the final post flight report to make the determination that this was an extremely successful mission. But they should be well on their way to starting [delivery] services,” said Lindenmoyer at the briefing. “Of course, officially we will look at the post flight data and make an official determination. But I would say at this point it looks like 100 percent success.”

Ken Kremer

Dragon Heading to Ocean Splashdown

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History’s first commercial cargo ship ever to visit the International Space Station (ISS) has safely and successfully departed the orbiting lab complex after astronauts released the craft from the grip of the station’s robotic arm at 5:49 a.m. EST (949 GMT) this morning, May 31, 2012 for the return trip to Earth to conclude a precedent setting stay that fully accomplished all objectives.

“Dragon is Free !” announced Josh Byerly, a NASA spokesman at Houston Mission control a short while ago as NASA astronauts Joe Acaba and Don Pettit released the first ever private spacecraft to attach to the ISS into a free drift mode for a fiery plunge through Earth’s atmosphere and splash down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California less than 6 hours from now.

“Everything looking safe and sound.”

The two spacecraft were some 250 miles (400 km) high above the Indian Ocean east of Africa at the moment of release and departure. Altogether, Dragon spent 5 days, 16 hours and 5 minutes mated to the station.

A minute later Dragon successfully conducted its first departure burn to back away from the massive orbiting complex followed shortly thereafter by two more short pulsed firings of the capsules thrusters. The last of the three short separation burns took place at 6:02 a.m. EDT.

Dragon released from ISS robot arm on May 31. Credit: NASA

The Dragon then passed outside the imaginary 200 meter (656 ft) circular zone known as the Keep-Out-Sphere (KOS) and was placed under the exclusive control of SpaceX mission controllers with NASA control duties completed

The next major event is the de-orbit burn scheduled for 10:51 a.m. EDT which is a 100 m/sec burn lasting 9 minutes and 50 seconds. The thruster firing will send Dragon plummeting through the Earth’s atmosphere at 17000 MPH where it must survive temperatures exceeding 3000 degrees F before landing.

Earlier this morning, Acaba and Pettit unhooked the final 16 motorized bolts and latches holding Dragon firmly to the station at the common berthing mechanism and detached Dragon from the station’s Earth facing Harmony node at 4:07 a.m. EDT using the 18 m (58 ft) Canadian robot arm. The astronauts worked at robotic work stations inside the multi-windowed Cupola observation dome.

Dragon Splashdown Zone

The SpaceX Dragon is now headed for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean at 11:44 a.m. EST (1544 GMT) some 490 nautical miles southwest of Los Angeles off the West Coast of California.

SpaceX has dispatched three recovery vessels to retrieve Dragon from the ocean.

Following launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida on May 22, Dragon arrived at the ISS on May 25 and the astronauts opened the hatch on May 26 and then proceeded to unload the cargo and refill it for the return trip.

Dragon is the world’s first commercial spacecraft and was built by Hawthorne, Calif., based SpaceX Corporation, founded in 2002 by CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk.

“This is SpaceX’s second demonstration flight under a 2006 Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement with NASA to develop the capability to carry cargo to and from the International Space Station’” says SpaceX spokeswoman Kirstin Grantham.

“With the first demonstration flight, in December of 2010, Dragon became the first commercial spacecraft to orbit the Earth and safely return. During that mission SpaceX conducted similar recovery operations to retrieve Dragon from a water landing in the Pacific. Demonstration missions are conducted to determine potential issues so that they might be addressed; by their very nature, they carry a significant risk. If any aspect of the mission is not successful, SpaceX will learn from the experience and try again.”

Live NASA TV coverage of the Dragon splashdown resumes at 10:15 a.m. EDT

Ken Kremer

……..

Updated Dragon Return Timeline from SpaceX – (times are approximate and subject to change)
Time (Pacific) Event
02:49 Dragon released by the station’s robotic arm
02:36 Dragon’s Draco thrusters fire first departure burn
07:51 Draco thrusters fire deorbit burn
08:09 Dragon’s trunk is jettisoned
08:35 Drogue parachutes are deployed
08:36 Main parachutes are deployed
08:44 Dragon lands in the Pacific

Station Astronauts Say Dragon is Plenty Roomy for Hauling Big Crews to Orbit

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Just how many astronauts can you cram inside a Dragon ? – think Volkswagen Beetle!

Well at least 6 human space flyers can easily fit inside a SpaceX Dragon vehicle, said NASA Astronaut Don Pettit from aboard the ISS during a Q & A session with reporters on Saturday, May 26. The discussion with the media took place only hours after Pettit’s history making hatch opening to the first private space capsule ever to dock at the International Space Station (ISS).

“We’ve already had all 6 people in here for a brief period,” Pettit told Universe Today during the media session on Saturday, soon after the hatch opening. “We haven’t taken any pictures of all 6 [together] yet.”

NASA astronaut Don Pettit (left), European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Andre Kuipers (center) and NASA astronaut Joe Acaba (right) speak to reporters on May 26, 2012 from inside the Dragon capsule soon after opening the hatch from the ISS. Credit: NASA TV

The three current station residents who played the key roles in the milestone events of grappling the Dragon cargo resupply craft with the station’s robotic arm and parking it at an open port on the Harmony Node 2 module on Friday, May 25, spoke to reporters while floating inside Dragon for about 20 minutes all told – including Pettit, ESA Astronaut Andre Kuipers and newly arrived fellow NASA astronaut Joe Acaba.

“There’s 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’s plenty of room in here for the envisioned crews,” Pettit told me while soaring some 400 kilometers (250 miles) above Earth.

Dragon is the world’s first commercial spacecraft to attach to the ISS and was built by SpaceX Corporation, founded in 2002 by CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk.

All three crew members seemed quite pleased with the Dragon’s layout and quite willing to fly aboard a human rated version in the future. SpaceX is designing Dragon to be capable of carrying 7 passengers in the crew configuration – and it looked spacious to me during the media briefing.

Inside of the Dragon module. Beautiful. Spacious, Modern. Blue LEDs. Feels a bit like a sci-fi...
Caption and Photo Credit: Andre Kuipers/ESA/NASA

“I spent quite a bit of time poking around in here this morning, just looking at the engineering and the layout, and I’m very pleased,” said Pettit. “It looks like it carries about as much cargo as I could put in my pickup truck. And it’s roomier than a Soyuz, so flying up in a human-rated Dragon is not going to be an issue.”

The gumdrop shaped Dragon capsule is 4.4 meters (14.4 ft) tall, and 3.66 m (12 ft) in diameter. It has an internal pressurized volume of about 350 cubic feet

On this first NASA sponsored test flight to rendezvous and dock at the ISS it 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 crew starts unloading Dragon today. It will remain berthed at the million pound orbiting outpost for about 6 days until it is detached on May 31 for a return trip to Earth and splashdown and retrieval in the Pacific Ocean a few hundred km (mi) off the coast of California.

The Dragon launched flawlessly atop a SpaceX built Falcon 9 booster on May 22 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Since the forced retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle fleet in July 2011 and for at least the next 3 to 5 years, the only way U.S. astronauts can reach the ISS is aboard ferry flights on the cramped three person Russian Soyuz capsule at a cost of some $60 million per seat to U.S. taxpayers.

SpaceX is one of four private companies receiving NASA funding under the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program and seeking to develop commercial “space taxis” to low Earth orbit.

A human-rated Dragon is one of the vehicles engaged in the on-going competition and vying for a NASA contract. But the first crewed flight to restore US human spaceflight capability has been delayed by years because of repeated slashes to NASA’s budget by the US Congress.

NASA now estimates that the first space taxi – possibly the SpaceX Dragon – won’t fly until about 2017.

Ken Kremer

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

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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

Station Astronauts Enter the Dragon – First Private Capsule at ISS

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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/www.kenkremer.com

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

Videos: Dragon Capsule Now Successfully Attached to ISS

This day will go down in history as the first time a commercial company has their own spacecraft attached to the International Space Station.

After Don Pettit grappled SpaceX’s Dragon capsule with the CanadArm2, Andre Kuipers later installed the capsule on the nadir port of the station’s Harmony node at 15:02 UTC/11:52 a.m. EDT. NASA astronaut Joe Acaba completed berthing operations by bolting the Dragon to Harmony at 16:02 UTC/12:02 p.m. EDT to the space station Friday.

Congratulations on a wonderful capture,” astronaut Megan Behnken radioed to the station crew from Mission Control. “You’ve made a lot of folks happy down here, over in Hawthorne and right here in Houston. Great job, guys.”

More videos, including the post-docking press conference with a jubilant Elon Musk and his SpaceX team.

“Today marks another critical step in the future of American spaceflight,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. “Now that a U.S. company has proven its ability to resupply the space station, it opens a new frontier for commercial opportunities in space — and new job creation opportunities right here in the U.S. By handing off space station transportation to the private sector, NASA is freed up to carry out the really hard work of sending astronauts farther into the solar system than ever before.”

The plan is to wait until Saturday to open hatches. The spacecraft is carrying nearly 460 kg (1,150) pounds of equipment and supplies: 674 pounds of food and crew provisions; 46 pounds of science hardware and equipment; 271 pounds of cargo bags needed for future flights; and 22 pounds of computer equipment.

“The crew is pretty excited so don’t be surprised if they want to open the hatches a little early,” said ISS Flight Director Holly Ridings at a press conference.

The schedule has Dragon remaining berthed to the ISS until May 31. The CanadArm2 will unberth the capsule and then release it. Dragon is the only cargo ship designed to return to Earth with experiments and equipment; others ships such as the Russian Progress, the European ATV and the Japanese HTV all burn up in the atmosphere. The Russian Soyuz crew craft can bring home limited equipment.

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