The second demonstration mission for NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program is under way as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft lifted off May 21 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., at 3:44 a.m., EDT.
At a press conference held after the launch, SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk began, “I would like to start off by saying what a tremendous honor it has been to work with NASA. And to acknowledge the fact that we could not have started SpaceX, nor could we have reached this point without the help of NASA … It’s really been an honor to work with such great people.”
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden congratulated SpaceX.
“I want to congratulate SpaceX for its successful launch and salute the NASA team that worked alongside them to make it happen,” Bolden said.
“Today marks the beginning of a new era in exploration; a private company has launched a spacecraft to the International Space Station that will attempt to dock there for the first time. And while there is a lot of work ahead to successfully complete this mission, we are certainly off to good start. Under President Obama’s leadership, the nation is embarking upon an ambitious exploration program that will take us farther into space than we have ever traveled before, while helping create good-paying jobs right here in the United States of America.”
The Dragon capsule will conduct a series of checkout procedures to test and prove its systems, including the capability to rendezvous and berth with the International Space Station. May 24, Dragon will perform a flyby of the space station at a distance of approximately 1.5 miles to validate the operation of sensors and flight systems necessary for a safe rendezvous and approach.
Following analysis of the flyby by NASA and SpaceX managers, the Dragon capsule will be cleared to rendezvous and berth with the space station May 25, marking the first time a commercial company has attempted this feat. The Expedition 31 crew on board the station will use the orbiting complex’s robotic arm to capture Dragon and install it on the bottom side of the Harmony node.
“This flight is an important milestone as NASA and SpaceX develop the next generation of U.S. spacecraft to carry the critically important experiments, payloads and supplies to our remarkable laboratory in space,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration Operations Directorate at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington.
SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, which will perform its own test flight later this year, have been working under NASA’s COTS program, which provides investments to stimulate the commercial space industry in America. Once the companies have successfully completed their test flights, they will begin delivering regular cargo shipments to the station.
“NASA is working with private industry in an unprecedented way, cultivating innovation on the path toward maintaining America’s leadership in space exploration,” said Philip McAlister, director for NASA’s Commercial Spaceflight Development.
Explaining the significance of the day, Musk said, “This mission heralds the dawn of a new era of space exploration, one in which there is a significant commercial space element. It is like the advent of the Internet in the mid-1990s when commercial companies entered what was originally a government endeavor. That move dramatically accelerated the pace of advancement and made the Internet accessible to the mass market. I think we’re at a similar inflection point for space. I hope and I believe that this mission will be historic in marking that turning point towards a rapid advancement in space transportation technology.”
In parallel to COTS, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is helping spur innovation and development of new spacecraft and launch vehicles from the commercial industry to develop safe, reliable and cost-effective capabilities to transport astronauts to low Earth orbit and the space station.
NASA also is developing the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System, a crew capsule and heavy-lift rocket that will provide an entirely new capability for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit. Designed to be flexible for launching spacecraft for crew and cargo missions, SLS and Orion will expand human presence beyond low Earth orbit and enable new missions of exploration across the solar system.
Dragon transports student experiments to space station
The SpaceX Dragon capsule, which May 22 became the first commercially developed and built spacecraft to launch to the International Space Station, is carrying among its cargo a suite of 15 science experiments designed by students.
Known collectively as Aquarius, the experiments will assess the effects of microgravity on physical, chemical and biological systems. The students have been immersed in every facet of research, from definition of the investigation to experiment design, proposal writing and a formal NASA proposal review for selection of flight experiments.
“This unique student activity adds a new dimension to the International Space Station and its role as America’s only orbiting national laboratory,” said Leland Melvin, NASA’s associate administrator for Education. “It also clearly demonstrates that students still can actively participate in NASA microgravity opportunities in the post-shuttle era.”
Aquarius is sponsored by the Student Space Flight Experiments Program, which is a cooperative venture by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education and NanoRacks LLC, a national science, technology, engineering and mathematics education initiative. The organizations work together to give 300 to 1,000 students across a community the opportunity to design and propose microgravity experiments to fly in low Earth orbit.
The first two SSEP payloads flew in 2011 aboard space shuttles Endeavour and Atlantis on the STS-134 and STS-135 missions respectively. This third round of experiments will be the first to be conducted in orbit by space station astronauts.
The announcement of opportunity for Aquarius was released in July 2011. It elicited responses from 12 communities in nine states and the District of Columbia. A total of 779 student teams, with 41,200 members ranging from fifth graders to community college, submitted proposals. After a formal two-step review process in fall 2011, the final 15 flight experiments were selected. They all passed a formal NASA flight safety review, clearing the final hurdle on their journey to launch.
This is one of many programs that use NASA’s science and exploration missions to encourage students to pursue a STEM-centric school curriculum. Building a robust cadre of scientists and engineers for the future is a high priority for NASA’s Office of Education.