Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s unmanned vehicle docked with the International Space Station in the first regular cargo mission in commercial spaceflight.
Astronauts used the station’s robotic arm to grab the Dragon capsule at 6:56 a.m. New York time and attached it to a docking port about 250 miles above Earth at 9:03 a.m., ahead of schedule.
“Looks like we’ve tamed the Dragon,” astronaut Sunita Williams said after the capsule was grabbed. “We’re happy she’s on board with us.”
The Hawthorne, California-based company, known as SpaceX and led by billionaire Elon Musk, on May 25 accomplished a similar feat in a test mission, becoming the first company to do so. This is the first of at least a dozen resupply flights the company will make under a $1.6 billion contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
NASA is relying on SpaceX and Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp. (ORB) to supply the station after retiring its shuttle fleet last year.
The three astronauts aboard the station in coming weeks will unload almost 1,000 pounds of cargo from the craft, including food, clothing and science experiments, and refill it with twice as much gear for the journey home, including frozen samples. Three more astronauts are scheduled to arrive in two weeks, bringing the crew to six.
SpaceX’s craft is designed to bring back a significant amount of experiments, much like NASA’s shuttle. Other cargo vessels developed by Orbital and the governments of Europe, Japan and Russia don’t bring anything back because they’re built to burn up during re-entry.
The shuttle’s retirement forced the U.S. government to depend on those countries to ferry cargo to the station. NASA relies on Russia to transport crews at a cost of about $63 million per seat.
One experiment will involve studying how microgravity affects cellular growth in plants, which spend about 50 percent of their energy overcoming gravity on Earth, according to NASA. Understanding how these genes work in space may someday benefit the food supply, the agency said.
The Dragon spacecraft lifted off in a Falcon 9 rocket on Oct. 7 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. While successful, the launch wasn’t flawless. A video showed debris flying off one of the nine engines about a minute and 19 seconds into flight.
The protective cover on engine one ruptured after the engine suddenly lost pressure and was shut down, according to an Oct. 8 e-mailed statement by Katherine Nelson, a SpaceX spokeswoman. The engine didn’t explode and continued to transmit data, she said.
The anomaly caused a communications satellite made by Orbcomm Inc. (ORBC) to be placed “into an orbit that was lower than intended,” according to an Oct. 8 statement by the Fort Lee, New Jersey-based provider of wireless messaging services.
The satellite, a prototype for the company’s second- generation network, was flying in the Falcon 9 as a secondary payload and separated from the rocket about 25 minutes after liftoff, Orbcomm said. Engineers are trying to determine if the satellite’s orbit can be corrected using an on-board propulsion system, the company said.
Jennifer Stroud, a spokeswoman for the company, didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.
Orbcomm plans to launch more satellites on two Falcon 9 flights in 2013 and 2014, according to the statement.
The spacecraft is scheduled to splash down Oct. 28 in the Pacific Ocean, about 250 miles off the coast of southern California.
SpaceX is also building a manned version of its Dragon spacecraft with help from NASA. The agency in August awarded three companies $1.11 billion to develop spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts. SpaceX won $440 million, Chicago-based Boeing Co. (BA) received $460 million and Sparks, Nevada-based Sierra Nevada Corp. got $213 million.
SpaceX plans an orbital flight with astronauts in 2015 and a mission to fly astronauts to the station in 2016, Musk said Oct. 5 during a press conference on NASA’s website.
Orbital plans to launch its new Antares rocket designed for space station missions for the first time in December. The company has a $1.9 billion contract with NASA for eight resupply missions expected to begin next year.
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