SpaceX readies historic mission

Artist's impression of Dragon approaching the station The Dragon ship will be grabbed by the station robotic arm and berthed to the underside of the platform

California's SpaceX company will look to establish a piece of history on Saturday when it launches its Falcon 9 rocket from Florida.

The vehicle will lift the Dragon cargo capsule into orbit on a mission to resupply the space station.

It will be the first time a commercial company has provided such a service.

Although billed as a demonstration, the mission has major significance because it marks a big change in the way the US wants to conduct its space operations.

Both SpaceX and another private firm, Orbital Sciences Corp, have been given billion-dollar contracts to keep the space station stocked with food and equipment. Orbital hopes to make its first visit to the manned outpost with its Antares/Cygnus system in the coming year.

Start Quote

Single-sourcing space transportation capability will just result in a new monopoly and will evolve the same cost structure as the old”

End Quote Jeff Greason XCOR Aerospace

Lift-off for the Falcon is timed for 04:55 EDT (08:55 GMT; 09:55 BST). It is going up from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The ascent phase should last a little under 10 minutes, with the Dragon capsule being ejected just over 300km (185 miles) above the Earth.

The conical spaceship will then deploy its solar panels and check out its guidance and navigation systems before firing its thrusters to chase down the station.

A practice rendezvous is planned for Monday when Dragon will move to within 2.5km (1.5 miles) of the station.

If Nasa and SpaceX are satisfied that the vehicle is performing well, it will be commanded to fly up and over the outpost in preparation for close-in manoeuvres on Tuesday.

Unlike the Russian and European robotic freighters that drive all the way into docking ports on the International Space Station (ISS), Dragon will move itself to a position just 10m (32ft) under the platform where it will be grabbed by a robotic arm operated by astronauts inside the orbiting laboratory.

Dragon Spacecraft annotated

The arm will berth Dragon to the "Harmony" connecting module on the ISS. The crew are then expected to start unloading the ship's supplies of food and other consumables on Wednesday.

"There's no question that some people are putting too much weight on this flight because it is explicitly a test flight; and, indeed, we may not succeed in getting all the way to the space station," cautions Elon Musk, the CEO and chief designer at SpaceX.

"There are, hopefully, going to be two more flights to the space station later this year with almost identical configuration, so if this one doesn't succeed I'm confident one of the other two will. There should be no doubt about our resolve."

This mission is part of Nasa's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (Cots) programme which was established to help shift some of the agency's traditional roles and activities into the private sector.

Nasa is provided seed funding of approximately $800m to SpaceX and Orbital to enable them to develop their rocket and capsule systems. Once they have reached the milestones laid out under Cots, the full ISS re-supply contracts will kick in.

Falcon 9 The Falcon 9 rocket has launched twice before

For SpaceX, this is valued at $1.6bn (£1bn) and calls for a minimum of 12 Dragon missions to the ISS.

But the significance of the upcoming mission goes far beyond the delivery of astronaut dinners and replacement parts for the station.

Nasa is attempting to offload routine human spaceflight operations in low-Earth orbit to commercial industry in a way similar to how large organisations might contract out their IT or payroll.

The agency will now set performance targets; it will be up to the individual companies to work out how best to meet those targets.

At the centre of this philosophy is the use of "fixed-price" contracts, rather than the "cost-plus" model that has featured so prominently in space programmes of the past.

The intention is to free Nasa to concentrate more of its effort and funds on planning exploration missions far beyond Earth, to asteroids and Mars.

This means privateers picking up not just the unmanned cargo runs to the ISS, but the delivery and return of crew as well.

Vital statistics: How do the spacecraft compare?
  • Dragon capsule

    Length: 5.2m
    Diameter: 3.6m
    Upmass: 6t
    The capsule is re-usable
  • Cygnus capsule

    Length: 6.7m
    Diameter: 3m
    Upmass: 2.7t
    Cygnus is destroyed on re-entry
  • Falcon 9 launch vehicle

    Design: Two stages
    Mass: 334t
    Thrust at lift-off: 5,000kN
    Fuel: Liquid oxygen/kerosene
  • Antares launch vehicle

    Design: Two stages
    Mass: 240t
    Thrust at lift-off: 3,000kN
    Fuel: Liquid oxygen/kerosene

To that end, SpaceX's capsule has been designed from the outset to carry people; and under another Nasa programme, the company is working to develop the onboard life-support and safety systems that would make manned Dragon flights feasible.

Lori Garver, Nasa's deputy administrator, observes: "We are at a brink of a milestone moment in our space history with the upcoming SpaceX launch - all part of this longer term strategy that will create high-quality jobs right here in America, reducing the cost of space transportation so that Nasa can spend our valuable tax dollars doing those very difficult things that the government is best at doing."

The "new era" is not without its detractors, however.

Elements in the US Congress would prefer to see the agency retain the intense oversight of the old approach.

These politicians say they have concerns about the safety of the new commercial systems, and question the value of seed-funding several companies in early-stage development work when only one or two completed systems are ever likely to win service contracts.

Dream Chaser Several teams promise a crew capability by the middle of this decade

Last week, the House of Representatives passed a bill calling on Nasa to choose one company now, and put all its investment behind that particular outfit.

But making such a choice would be deeply flawed, believes Jeff Greason, the president of XCOR Aerospace and a leading proponent of commercial space.

"It is clearly possible 50 years after John Glenn for US industry to take people to orbit," he says.

"And given the fiscal realities, there is in my view simply no credible alternative to commercial crew transportation services, because trying to maintain a government-only ISS crew taxi will just break the budget.

"But competition is the key element in that strategy. Single-sourcing space transportation capability will just result in a new monopoly and will evolve the same cost structure as the old.

"Competition is the only tool we have to keep that from happening."

Since the shuttles were retired last year, America has no means currently of launching its own astronauts into space - seats must be bought for them on Russian Soyuz rockets.

SpaceX says Dragon could be ready to carry people within three years. Competing companies are promising similar timelines.

Jonathan Amos Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    At least we know their safety shut off systems are up to scratch.......

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    50. Trollslayer
    ....the UK space industry exports are worth about £10 billion (not million) a year....

    Ah statistics..

    I think you will find that the vast majority of that '£10 Billion' is in fact Sky TV, with a bit added on for sat phones - basically service industries.

    The 'real' UK space industry i.e. making stuff, is in fact worth around £1 Billion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    "Last week, the House of Representatives passed a bill calling on Nasa to choose one company now, and put all its investment behind that particular outfit."

    The state bankrolling a private monopoly. Now that makes economic sense. Then state leaders gather to discuss measures to control national debts and credit crises. LOL.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    They've had to postpone the launch till Tuesday because of an engine fault.
    I am glad to see that the decision was made by engineers, rather than managers or politicians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    Let us not forget however, that whilst the private sector may be taking up the baton, as is almost always the case, it was the public sector who did the expensive trail blazing......

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    For the people against science and advancement for mankind should go live in a cave somewhere away from technology, medicine or anything we achieved.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]New results from NASA's NEOWISE survey find that more potentially hazardous asteroids, or PHAs, are closely aligned with the plane of our solar system than previous models suggested.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    So now any millionaire can buy a ticket ? I don't support that option.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    This all seems eminently sensible to me. Leave the frontier of space to NASA, leave the mundane work-a-day stuff to the commercial sector. Personally I can see a use for both of the systems detailed so I'm not so sure about pressure to choose a single option.

    Love the AP pick of the Falcon 9 rocket. Great shot of what looks like a pressure wave passing the nose--Looks like the sound barrier

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Fancy helping me with a curiosity, OK so scientists say that a trip to Mars would be one way, the problem with this is selling it to the people. So lets see (I realise people reading this are science based or at least have an interest) who would go if it was one way? vote up for yes down for no.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    #75 Drunken Hobo
    "free computer programs"

    There is a big difference between watching a computer simulation of the world, and being there. Only a person can properly describe the way it feels .

    I have hopes of finding signs of life on Mars or a gas giant's icy moons, though it might need a biologist on site to spot the signs
    Finding intelligent life is a lot harder...even on Earth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    72 Entropic man - There’re already free computer programs that allow anyone to fly across the surface of Mars & land anywhere they please. They can even simulate landing on far more distant objects such as Neptune's Triton. The need for human space exploration is limited, but still valid. For one, they found that Mars rovers were particularly useless at finding any signs of life... when on Earth

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    #73 Mike Davies

    Time spent in reconnaisance is never wasted.

    Robots tell us the environment to prepare for and hint at questions to ask, but there is no substitute for the human explorer. Harrison Schmidt finding orange soil during the Apollo 17 mission comes to mind.
    Nor would a robot have appreciated Buzz Aldrin's "magnificent desolation"!

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    @ 72. Entropic man

    I certainly hope so!

    Robotic vehicles are excellent pathfinders and science investigators but let us hope that there will always be someone brave (or foolish?) enough "to boldly go where no man has gone before." (Sorry, couldn't resist that one!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    I hope we are not reducing the human race to keyboard-bound geeks, exploring by remote control.
    Surely there are some people left with the outward urge, willing to boldly go out into the solar system in person.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    @ 70. Drunken Hobo

    I think you have a very good point. The irony, as you recognise, is that the Computer Age would never have taken off in the way that it did without the Space Age. The advance in computer processing power was very much related to the need to reduce weight when launching both manned and unmanned vehicles. Where would we be today without GPS and communications satellites?

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    I think, somewhat ironically, the biggest hindrance to the Space Age was the advent of the Computer Age. No longer was technology about how big a rocket you had, or how far you could send humans from the planet, but it was about how much information you had. There's no longer any need to send people to space, as robots do an adequate job, but it doesn't have the same romance as human space flight.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    "It wasn't any Government that developed the new world, it was private commerce!"

    That happened by a few people investing everything in ventures that were both long-shot gambles and often almost suicidal. Many died, a few got rich beyond their wildest dreams. There were enough of the latter that people kept trying. Maybe space will mreach that tipping point, maybe not, only one way to find out

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    "Is our best hope the founder of primitive, abusive Paypal?"

    As we transition from government to commercial spaceflight the money and inspiration must come from private capital.
    Queen Isabella financed Columbus, Bristol merchants financed John Cabot, Elon Musk finances SpaceX.

    To quote Tom Wolfe "No bucks, no Buck Rogers!"

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    @ 53. Tchernobog

    "Manned space missions are incredibly expensive, pointless and essentially a drain of money which could be spent on real science"

    I wonder if anybody said that when the first humans dared to venture outside Africa 150,000 years ago?


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