SpaceX makes history with successful flight of Dragon spacecraft

Space Exploration Technologies made history on May 25 when its Dragon spacecraft became the first commercial vehicle in history to successfully attach to the International Space Station (ISS).

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Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX, Hawthorne, Calif.) made history on May 25 when its Dragon spacecraft became the first commercial vehicle in history to successfully attach to the International Space Station (ISS). Previously, only four governmental space programs — those of the U.S., Russia, Japan and Europe — had achieved this challenging technical feat.

The vehicle was grappled by the space station’s robotic arm at 9:56 a.m. Eastern time on May 25 and was pulled in, allowing Dragon’s passive common berthing mechanism to attach to the orbiting laboratory at 12:02 p.m. Eastern time. SpaceX CEO and chief designer Elon Musk, when asked for his initial thoughts on Dragon’s capture and move into the history books, replied, “Just awesome.” Dragon carried 460 kg/1,014 lb of noncritical cargo, including food, water and clothing for station inhabitants.

The successful flight marks SpaceX’s second demonstration flight under a 2006 Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement with NASA to develop the capability to carry cargo to and from the ISS. According to published sources, NASA has invested about $925 million (USD) to help create a private spaceflight industry in an effort to transport humans and cargo to the ISS and beyond, with the anticipation of lower costs than traditional government procurements. In addition to COTS, programs also include Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) and Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) for human transport.

ATK (Los Angeles, Calif.) announced on May 9 that it has developed Liberty, a complete commercial crew transportation system — including a spacecraft, an abort system, a launch vehicle and ground and mission operations equipment — in partnership with Astrium North America (Houston, Texas). The system was designed from inception to meet NASA’s human-rating requirements. The company also announced that Lockheed Martin (Bethesda, Md.) will provide support to the Liberty team as a major subcontractor on the project.

The Liberty spacecraft includes a composite crew module, built by ATK at its Iuka, Miss., facility as part of a NASA Langley Research Center (Hampton, Va.) risk-reduction program, between 2007 and 2010. As prime contractor, ATK is responsible for the composite crew module, the Max Launch Abort System (MLAS), first stage, system integration and ground and mission operations; Astrium will provide the second stage powered by the Vulcain 2 engine; and Lockheed Martin will provide subsystems and other support.

Says Kent Rominger, VP and program manager for the Liberty program, “Liberty will give the U.S. a new launch capability with a robust business case and a schedule that we expect will have us flying crews in just three years, ending our dependence on Russia.” Liberty’s test flights are expected to begin in 2014, with a crewed mission anticipated in late 2015. The current schedule will support crewed missions for NASA and other potential customers by 2016, with a price per seat that is projected to be lower than on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.

ATK’s approach leverages design work performed at NASA Langley on the composite crew module and launch abort system, for which ATK was a contractor. Liberty’s performance will enable the system to launch both crew and cargo and also serve crewless markets, including ISS cargo missions, U.S. government satellite launches and future endeavors. The project has been developed under a CCDev unfunded Space Act Agreement (SAA) with the NASA Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office at the Kennedy Space Center. All development to date has been performed with internal funding from ATK and Astrium.