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NASA, SpaceX Plan First U. S. Commercial Supply Mission to the International Space Station


An artist's conception of the SpaceX Dragon. Photo Credit/SpaceX

NASA and SpaceX, of Hawthorne, are aiming for an April 30 lift off of the first U. S. commercial re-supply mission to the International Space Station.

The space agency’s six year-old Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program was initiated to foster private sector cargo and eventually crew launch services to low Earth orbit in the post space shuttle era.

SpaceX is close to achieving the first objective if it can complete additional software verifications, a final mission simulation with NASA and a launch pad “hot fire” test of the SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage.

If those activities go well, the SpaceX Dragon, mounted atop the Falcon 9, will be ready to lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on April 30 at 12:22 p.m., EDT.

A three week flight is planned.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon lift off to start a 2010 test mission. Photo Credit/SpaceX

“What we do is make sure the station is ready to receive the vehicle, that the teams are trained, the crew on orbit is ready and we have thought about all the contingencies that could occur and that we are really ready to go through with the demonstration mission,” explained  Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations. “I think the teams are very well prepared.”

Gerstenmaier spoke following a lengthy flight readiness review earlier this week that included representatives from SpaceX as well as NASA’s space station program office.

“It’s been a huge amount of hard work by the SpaceX team in partnership with NASA,” said Elon Musk, the SpaceX chief executive officer and chief designer. “I think we got a pretty good shot, but I think it’s worth emphasizing that there is a lot that can go wrong on a mission like this. You have to have the success of the rocket, the succcess of the spacecraft.”

The Falcon 9 rocket has flown twice previously, and the Dragon capsule once.

The rendezvous and berthing operations comprise the new challenge for SpaceX.

The timeline would see the Dragon capsule rendezvous with the space station on May 2, closing to a point 1.5 miles below the station to check the relative navigation and communications between Dragon and the space station crew.

If mission managers concur, Dragon would move away from the station and return early the next day, this time to be grappled by the space station astronauts and berthed to the orbiting lab’s Harmony module.

NASA astronaut Don Pettit and European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers have trained to use the station’s Canadarm2, a mechanical limb with a 58 foot reach, to nab Dragon as it closes within 40 feet.

The Dragon capsule will carry just over 1,100 pounds of food, spare parts and research equipment.

As the 18-day stay unfolds, Dragon will be repacked with about 1,400 pounds of equipment that will be returned to Earth.

After the spacecraft undocks, it will descend to Earth under parachute, aiming for a splashdown off  California’s Pacific Coast.

NASA’s second COTS partner, Orbital Sciences Corp., of Dulles,Va., is preparing for a similar test flight later this year. Orbital plans to launch fromWallops Island, Va.

The SpaceX Dragon is also striving for a human rating that could carry up to seven astronauts to the space station and back to Earth.

NASA is looking to 2017 to begin commercially flown crew missions.

Regular cargo missions by SpaceX and Orbital could be under way by the end of this year.


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