Tuesday, May 15, 2012

SpaceX Counting Down For Historic Launch To Space Station

SpaceX Counting Down For Historic Launch To Space Station:

Photo: NASA
Elon Musk is one step closer to his end goal of making human life multi-planetary. No, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket hasn’t boosted the Dragon spacecraft into its rendezvous orbit with the International Space Station quite yet. That launch is scheduled for Saturday morning at 4:55 a.m. ET from Cape Canaveral in Florida. But as Floridians were drifting off to sleep last night, halfway around the world a Russian Soyuz rocket lifted off with a pair of cosmonauts and an American astronaut bound for the ISS.
Last night’s launch was part of the reason SpaceX delayed the launch by about two weeks from its previously scheduled lift off. NASA and SpaceX wanted to avoid a potential traffic jam in orbit with two separate spacecraft scheduled for trips to the space station. And the successful launch was one of the final variables before SpaceX will finally get the chance to test its Dragon capsule.
The last scheduled SpaceX launch on May 7 had to be scrubbed due to more software testing. There is a manual override option, but the Dragon will mostly be an autonomous, robotic spacecraft during its rendezvous in orbit. In fact, the manual override is one of the many things being tested during the test flight. The entire mission includes two separate demonstrations by SpaceX to fulfill requirements NASA has set for commercial companies to be able to deliver cargo payloads to the ISS.
The SpaceX delays should make things a bit easier for the ISS crew currently in orbit. The three man crew was expecting to handle the SpaceX rendezvous and berthing on their own. But now with the Soyuz capsule currently in orbit, three more crew members are expected to be on board the space station on Thursday. The original three are still expected to handle the rendezvous and berthing of the Dragon using the station’s large robotic arm – the picture above is from a rehearsal session from inside the Cupola observatory module where the berthing will be orchestrated. But the three extra crew members should make the laborious unpacking and cargo transfer much easier.
If successful – and SpaceX, Elon Musk and NASA have all reiterated the fact this is a test flight and therefore a big “if” – the Dragon spacecraft will be the first commercially developed, launched and operated spacecraft to deliver supplies to the ISS some time early next week. There will be just over 1,000 pounds of supplies and gear on the way up, and the Dragon will carry several hundred pounds of cargo back to earth as well.
According to NASA, nothing on board the Dragon is essential to the operation of the ISS or the crew. But for several groups of young students, the payload is very important. Tucked inside Dragon along with some food, clothes, batteries and a laptop, are 15 experiments chosen from from 779 student teams that submitted proposals for doing research in low earth orbit.
The winning teams were scheduled to fly their experiments on a Soyuz rocket, but in the rarely predictable scheduling of rocket launches, the manifest changes meant the middle and high school student projects are set to launch on the Falcon 9 this Saturday. All of the experiments are housed in a single modular housing and include research on microbial life and water purification in a micro-gravity environment.
For Musk the success of this week’s mission may not be guaranteed, but he told us last month that there will be other opportunities for flights to the ISS later this year and he’s absolutely confident that SpaceX will deliver to the ISS. The cargo mission and eventual contract with NASA is just one step in Musk’s grand plan of traveling to Mars. Something he believes will happen in the not too distant future and one day will be available for anybody who wants to spend $500,000 for the roughly 130,000,000 mile trip.
Wired will have live coverage of Saturday’s launch over at our new Open Space.

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