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Preparations Continue for Dragon Return to Earth on May 31-UPDATE 2

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-May-2012 (Updated: 30-May-2012 10:42 PM)

UPDATE 2:  Wednesday evening (May 30) NASA said via Twitter that NASA TV coverage would begin an hour earlier, at 2:30 am ET.  SpaceX also is reporting that splashdown will be at 11:44 am ET, a time that was earlier announced by NASA, but is later than what SpaceX indicated earlier today.  Stay tuned to NASA TV or follow @NASA or @SpaceX on Twitter for up to the minute information on Dragon's whereabouts. 

UPDATE:  NASA added another piece of the timeline this afternoon via its space station website -- astronauts will detach Dragon from the Harmony module using Canadarm2 at 4:05 am ET tomorrow (May 31).  A list of the key events that we've discerned from NASA and SpaceX sources is available here, but all times are approximate and the best way to keep track is to follow the events as they unfold on NASA TV.

ORIGINAL STORY:  NASA and SpaceX provided more details today about tomorrow's return to Earth of the Dragon spacecraft, the first commercial spacecraft to visit the International Space Station (ISS).   Dragon will be released from ISS's Canadarm2 at approximately 09:35 GMT (5:35 am EDT, 4:35 am CDT) with splashdown in the Pacific five and a half hours later.

SpaceX Mission Manager John Couluris said at a NASA/Space-X press conference this morning that the weather looks excellent in the splashdown area 490 nautical miles (564 statute miles or 907 kilometers) southwest of Los Angeles.    American Marine will perform the recovery operations under contract to SpaceX.   Dragon will be brought by ship to the port of Los Angeles and then flown to McGregor Airport near Waco, TX and SpaceX's propulsion and structural test facilities.  

The ISS crew loaded Dragon with items to be returned to Earth and SpaceX plans to demonstrate an "early access" ability to return high priority cargo to NASA within 48 hours.  Standard cargo is to be returned within 14 days.   NASA flight director Holly Ridings said that there is no "critical" cargo on this mission since it is a test flight.  The hatch to Dragon was closed this morning.  The hatch to the Harmony module (Node 2) will be closed and the area between the hatches depressurized tomorrow morning.

This Dragon spacecraft will not be reused, Couluris said.   NASA has contracted for new Dragon spacecraft for each of its missions, he said, although Dragons are reusable.   This particular spacecraft "definitely" will be put on display for historical purposes, but other Dragon spacecraft could be refurbished and reflown for other customers.   One version, DragonLab, is capable of two years of autonomous operations in orbit, he added.

Couluris stressed that reentry, splashdown, and recovery operations are challenging and "we are not taking this lightly at all."  However, even if this final phase was not successful, in his opinion the rendezvous and berthing operations with ISS already make the mission overall a success.

Ridings explained that after Dragon is released from Canadarm2, it will make three engine burns -- two short, one long -- and move away from station.   That will take 10-11 minutes after which it will be out of the zone of integrated operations and back under SpaceX's control.   SpaceX will fire the engines again for the deorbit burn.   The recovery team is already enroute to the splashdown point and SpaceX anticipates it will take 2-3 days for the ships to return to port after they get Dragon aboard. 

NASA to Discuss Upcoming Launch of NuSTAR Black Hole Hunter Today

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-May-2012 (Updated: 30-May-2012 09:21 AM)

NASA is currently planning to launch the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) on June 13 from Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific.  The agency will hold a news conference to discuss the launch at 1:00 pm ET today, May 30, 2012.

NuSTAR was designed by Dr. Fiona Harrison of CalTech to search for black holes.  It was scheduled for launch on March 22 aboard an Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Pegasus XL rocket, but was postponed when a Flight Readiness Review (FRR) concluded that more time was needed to ensure that a new flight computer would work properly.

Participants in today's press conference from NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC are:

  • Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington
  • Fiona Harrison, NuSTAR principal investigator at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif.
  • Daniel Stern, NuSTAR project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena 
  • Yunjin Kim, NuSTAR project manager at JPL

The press conference will be aired on NASA TV.

Dragon to Return on Thursday, NASA Plans Media Events Beginning Tomorrow - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-May-2012 (Updated: 30-May-2012 03:24 PM)

UPDATE:  At a press conference today (May 30), NASA Flight Director Holly Ridings said Dragon will be released from Canadarm2 at approximately 09:35 GMT tomorrow morning (5:35 am EDT, 4:35 am CDT), May 31.  It must first be detached from the Harmony module, but she did not specify the time for that event, saying only that the crew would be awakened at 04:00 GMT (midnight EDT, 11:00 pm May 30 CDT) and immediately get to work finalizing preparations for Dragon's departure. NASA TV coverage begins at 3:30 am EDT (07:30 GMT, 2:30 am CDT).  After release, Dragon will fire its engines three times to move away from the ISS, taking a total of 10-11 minutes.   SpaceX will resume control of Dragon thereafter and fire the engines again for a deorbit burn.  Splashdown in the Pacific Ocean 490 nautical miles southwest of Los Angeles is expected five and a half hours after Dragon is released. All times are approximate.

ORIGINAL STORY: Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are unloading more than 1,000 pounds of cargo delivered by SpaceX's Dragon spaceraft and reloading it with items to be returned to Earth.  Dragon is scheduled to unberth from the ISS early Thursday morning Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) and land in the Pacific Ocean.

NASA released details on planned coverage of the end of Dragon's test flight as part of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.  The flight has gone well so far, but the spacecraft must still return to Earth and be recovered before complete success can be claimed.

In an interview on NASA TV today, NASA's Lead Integration Systems Engineer for the Dragon test flight, Paul Brower, talked about some of the challenges that arose on Friday as Dragon approached the ISS.  Remarking that unexpected situations develop whenever a new vehicle visits the ISS for the first time. Brower said that Dragon's computers locked up, some of its sensors went bad, and there were problems with some of its laser rangers and thermal imagers, while the ISS had problems with its GPS sensors.  Working together, however, NASA and SpaceX were able to resolve the problems.  Brower said SpaceX did a "phenomenal job," handling the problems "calmly."

NASA laid out its media events for the final stages of this test flight today.  Here is a recap:

  • Wednesday, May 30 (tomorrow)
    • 10:00 am EDT (9:00 am CDT), news briefing at Johnson Space Center with NASA Flight Director Holly Ridings and  SpaceX Mission Manager John Couluris
  • Thursday, May 31
    • 3:30 am EDT (2:30 am CDT) -- NASA TV live coverage begins
    • 6:10 am EDT (5:10 am CDT), time approximate -- Dragon unberths from ISS
    • 10:15 am EDT (9:15 am CDT) -- NASA TV coverage resumes for deorbit and splashdown 
    • 11:44 am EDT (10:44 am CDT) -- splashdown (NASA says it will be hundreds of miles off the west coast of the United States "likely out of range of live television")
    • 2:00 pm EDT (1:00 pm CDT) -- NASA/SpaceX news briefing

Dragon is the first commercially-owned spacecraft to deliver cargo to the ISS.   It was launched on May 22 and berthed to the ISS on May 25.  Berthing means that the astronauts on the ISS grappled Dragon with the robotic Canadarm2 and "installed" it onto a docking port.  Dragon cannot dock with the space station by itself.  It will depart from the ISS the same way, with astronauts using Canadarm2 to release the spacecraft, which will then fire its engines to descend through the atmosphere and land in the ocean.


Christy: Shenzhou 9 Launch to Chinese Space Station Possible June 17

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-May-2012 (Updated: 28-May-2012 01:57 PM)

Bob Christy of anticipates that China's next launch to its Tiangong 1 space station may occur on June 17.   China launched Tiangong 1 last year and the unoccupied Shenzhou-8 spacecraft conducted automated rendezvous and docking tests with it in November.  China said at the time that two more Shenzhou spacecraft would visit the space station over the next two years.  In March, China's Xinhua news agency said that the next spacecraft, Shenzhou 9, would carry a three-person crew, possibly including China's first female taikonaut.

Christy's analysis of orbital maneuvers by Tiangong 1 leads him to conclude that June 17 is the most likely, but not certain, date for the Shenzhou 9 launch.  Writing in Space Daily today, he says that a launch window opens on June 17 and based on the fact that China recently lowered Tiangong 1's apogee, he concludes that "a late morning launch (UTC) will allow Shenzhou 9 and its crew of three to make rendezvous with Tiangong 1."

Tiangong-1 (Heavenly Palace) was launched in September 2011.  It is very small compared to the International Space Station (ISS) -- 8.5 metric tons (19,000 pounds) compared to about 400 metric tons (885,600 pounds) -- but nonetheless is a space station and placing a crew aboard would be a significant step in China's human spaceflight achievements.  

Shenzhou 8, launched October 31 Eastern Daylight Time (November 1 in China) made two automated dockings in November and returned to Earth on November 17. 

China's Xinhua news agency reported on May 11 that Shenzhou 9's launch vehicle had been moved to the pad, but did not specify a launch date, saying only that it would take place between June and August with the goal of completing "a manned rendezvous and docking mission."   Xinhua said in March that an initial crew selection had been completed and women were included in the roster, but the final choice of the three-person crew would not take place until much closer to launch. 

Events of Interest: Week of May 27-June 1, 2012

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-May-2012 (Updated: 27-May-2012 04:37 PM)

The following events may be of interest in the week ahead.   The Senate is in recess this week.  The House took its Memorial Day recess last week and returns for legislative business on Wednesday.

During the Week

Interest will remain high in SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft, which is scheduled to depart from the International Space Station (ISS) on Thursday and be recovered in the Pacific Ocean off the U.S. west coast.    It's a quick visit for Dragon, having berthed with the ISS on Friday.  The ISS crew is busy unloading the supplies brought by Dragon and reloading it with items for return to Earth.  Dragon is the only ISS cargo spacecraft that can return material to Earth.  Russia's Progress, Europe's ATV and Japan's HTV all burn up in the atmosphere during reentry (and usually are filled with trash on the way down, so serve a useful purpose in their own right during reentry).

Meanwhile, the International Space Development Conference (ISDC) in Washington continues through Monday, and Women in Aerospace will hold its annual one-day conference on Friday.

Sunday-Monday, May 27-28

Thursday, May 31

Friday, June 1

Google Lunar X Prize Agrees to Respect Historical Lunar Sites

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 27-May-2012 (Updated: 27-May-2012 04:07 PM)

Last week, NASA and the X Prize Foundation announced that the Google Lunar X Prize will recognize NASA guidelines to protect U.S. lunar artifacts of historic and scientific value. With the voluntary guidelines designating varying “keep-out” zones, this means that the vehicles of the 26 teams vying for the $30 million in prizes will not have free room to rove.

NASA spacecraft on the Moon and items transported there by the Apollo crews, just like the samples returned to Earth by the astronauts, remain the property of the U.S. Government.  Similarly, the Luna spacecraft and Lunokhod robotic rovers sent to the Moon by the Soviet Union are the property of the Russian government.  Under the terms of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, however, no government can claim sovereignty over the Moon itself, so there are no legally binding rules about what can or cannot be done at the landing sites or along the routes that the U.S. astronauts or Soviet robotic rovers traversed.

The guidelines were developed by NASA in an attempt to preserve U.S. sites, at least, for historical purposes as other countries and companies plan new lunar missions and could be a step towards international guidelines.  The announcement last week was made as part of the Global Space Exploration Conference (GLEX) organized by the International Astronautical Federation and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics,  

NASA released the guidelines in July 2011 after assembling data from previous lunar studies, and analysis of samples of NASA’s Surveyor 3 spacecraft returned by the Apollo 12 crew.  Surveyor 3 was one of seven U.S. robotic spacecraft sent to soft-land on the Moon in the late 1960s as precursors to the Apollo missions. Apollo 12 landed close enough to Surveyor 3’s landing site that the crew was able to visit it and retrieve some of its components for study back on Earth.

Apollo 12 astronaut Charles "Pete" Conrad stands next to Surveyor 3 on lunar surface, with Apollo 12 lander Intrepid in background. Photo Credit:  NASA Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean.

The guidelines were developed under the leadership of Rob Kelso, a former shuttle flight director who is now NASA Johnson Space Center’s manager for lunar commercial services, and involved experts in history, science and flight planning.  According to the document, these will serve as interim recommendations for lunar vehicle design and mission planning teams until a more formal U.S. government guidance or a multilateral approach is developed.

The guidelines apply to a variety of artifacts and sites on the Moon, including Apollo lunar surface landing and roving hardware, specific indicators of U.S. robotic or human-robotic lunar presence (e.g. footprints), and impact sites. One section is devoted to the issue of mobility and details recommended exclusion zones and their rationale for specific sites. For example, the Apollo 11 and 17 sites, which “carry special historical and cultural significance”  would be roped off completely “by prohibiting visits to any part of the site and that all visiting vehicles remain beyond the artifact boundaries ... of the entire site.” These boundaries have a radial extent of 75 meters for Apollo 11 and of 225 meters for the Apollo 17 site. Greater access is recommended in turn for the Apollo 12, 14, 15 and 16 sites to allow for the close inspection of their individual components, considered ongoing experiments in space weathering as they are exposed to the harsh environment on the lunar surface. 

In the joint announcement, the X Prize Foundation said it will take these guidelines into consideration as it judges the mobility plans of the teams participating in the competition.  According to the release, "NASA and the next generation of lunar explorers share a common interest in preserving humanity's first steps on another celestial body and protecting ongoing science from the potentially damaging effects of nearby landers."

ISS Crew Working Ahead of Schedule, Hatches Open - Update 3

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-May-2012 (Updated: 26-May-2012 11:57 PM)

UPDATE 3:   A link to the video of the press conference with the ISS crew has been added.

UPDATE 2:  A link to the video of hatch opening also has been added.

UPDATE:  A photo of three ISS crew members looking out from the Dragon hatch has been added.  It is from the news conference earlier today.

The International Space Station (ISS) crew is working ahead of schedule today.  The hatches between SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft and the ISS were opened at 5:53 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).  Astronaut Don Pettit reported that Dragon has "the smell of a brand new car."

video of the hatch opening is on YouTube.   A press conference with the ISS crew occurred later that day and that video also is on YouTube.

The crew needs to unload 460 kilograms (1,014 pounds) of cargo from Dragon and then reload it with up to 620 kilograms (1,367 pounds) of items for return to Earth before Dragon departs on Thursday, May 31. Unloading is expected to take 20-25 hours of work.

Dragon is the first privately owned spacecraft to visit the ISS.  Its successful berthing with the ISS yesterday has won accolades from many quarters.  This is a test flight, and the spacecraft must return to Earth and be recovered in the Pacific Ocean before complete success can be claimed, but so far the mission is proceeding very well.




Flight Engineers Don Pettit, Andre Kuipers and Joe Acaba discuss Dragon’s mission during a crew news conference inside the Dragon spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA TV    Caption Credit:  NASA

ISS Crew to Open Hatches to Dragon Saturday Morning, Dragon to Depart May 31

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-May-2012 (Updated: 25-May-2012 08:19 PM)

The successful berthing of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft with the International Space Station (ISS) today is earning accolades from many quarters.  The next big step is when the International Space Station (ISS) crew opens the hatches between Dragon and ISS Saturday morning.

The event is scheduled for 7:40 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).  NASA TV coverage will begin at 5:30 am EDT and a press conference with the ISS crew is scheduled for 11:25 am EDT.

Lead flight director Holly Ridings said at a press conference today that Dragon will have a relatively short stay at the ISS, departing on May 31 at about 5:00 am Central Daylight Time (CDT), which would be 6:00 am EDT.  The ISS crew needs to unpack Dragon's 460 kilograms (1,014 pounds) of cargo and then load it with up to 620 kilograms (1,367 pounds) of items for return to Earth during those few short days.  She estimated it would take about 25 hours of work to unload it.

ISS program manager Mike Sufferdini said that if the mission continues to unfold successfully, the first Commercial Resupply Flight (CRS) could happen as early as September.   He also updated the status of Orbital Sciences Corp.'s competitor to SpaceX, the Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft.   He said Orbital anticipates the first test launch as early as August, with its demonstration flight in December, and first CRS mission next spring.

Ridings and Sufferdini were part of a press conference airing from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX, but they were joined by a clearly elated Elon Musk, CEO and CTO of Space X, and NASA's Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of the commercial crew and cargo program, from SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, CA.    Surrounded by cheering and chanting employees, Musk was asked about all the young faces among his workforce.  He said that he believes it is important "to mix the wisdom of age with the vibrancy of youth to get the best outcome," adding that the average age at SpaceX is 30, with half of the employees over 30 and half of them under.  A reporter from Bloomberg News asked if today's success would affect Musk's timing for holding an Initial Public Offering (IPO) for SpaceX.  Musk replied no, that the timing is dependent on the company having a "steady cadence of launches."  He also joked that he refers to Dragon "docking" with ISS instead of "berthing," even though the latter technically is correct, because people think he is talking about "birthing" and get confused. 

Dragon did not dock with ISS.  It moved close to ISS and then was grappled by astronauts using Canadarm2 who then "installed" Dragon at its docking port.  That is berthing.  Dragon needs to have someone aboard ISS to perform those last critical steps; it cannot join with the ISS itself.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was speaking at the International Space Development Conference (ISDC) in Washington, DC as Dragon was being captured by the ISS crew using the robotic Canadarm 2.  Jeff Foust (@Jeff_Foust) tweeted that Bolden said "after today, many more believers in commercial spaceflight than just an hour ago" and "if we deliver things on time and on cost, people will believe what we say."    Bolden later called the ISS crew to congratulate everyone on a "superb effort today."

John Holdren, President Obama's Science Adviser and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued his own congratulatory statement, and OSTP released a compilation of statements by members of the space community.  Other statements were issued by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, and by the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.


SASC Adds Funds for ORS, STP and Commercial Imagery Purchase

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-May-2012 (Updated: 25-May-2012 04:32 PM)

The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) completed markup of its version of the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act yesterday.  Among its actions, SASC added funds for the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) program and Space Test Program (STP) as well as for the government to purchase commercial satellite imagery.

Overall, the committee kept the total funding authorized in its version of the bill (S. 2467) to the same level requested by the Obama Administration, unlike the companion measure (H.R. 4310) passed by the House on May 18, which is $4 billion above the request.

Among the many changes to the President's request within that topline, the committee added money to and changed the reporting structure of the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) program instead of eliminating the program as the Obama Administration proposed.  SASC also directed that money be transferred into ORS from DOD's now-cancelled Defense Weather Satellite System so the ORS program can develop a low cost weather satellite instead.  According to the committee's press release, its bill --

  • "Moves the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office from reporting to the Executive Agent for Space to the Commander of Air Force Space and Missile Center; requires the Office to be geographically separate from the headquarters Space and Missile Center; has the Program Element Officer for Space as the acquisition executive for ORS; establishes an Executive Committee of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (USD(AT&L)), Commander U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), Commander AF Space Command and the Executive Agent for Space and authorizes a transfer up to $60.0 million in FY 2012 funds (subject to appropriation acts) from the Weather Satellite Follow on program for the ORS Office to build a low cost high technology readiness level weather satellite," and
  • "Restores $10.0 million proposed by the DOD to be taken from the ORS program, adds $35.0 million to restore funding at $45.0 million to continue working with the combatant commands (COCOM)s, and U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) in particular, on low cost responsive satellites similar to ORS-1."

The House authorization bill added $25 million for ORS (the request was zero), but does not include the other provisions.

As for STP, which the Obama Administration also wants to end, SASC added $35 million to the $10 million requested, identical to the House authorization action.

The House Appropriations Committee, however, did not restore funding for either program.  The Senate Appropriations Committee has not acted on its bill yet.

SASC also added $125 million for the government to purchase commercial satellite imagery from GeoEye and DigitalGlobe to keep funding level at FY2012 levels, according to the press release.   SASC also is requiring a study by the Joint Staff and the Congressional Budget Office "on the requirements for, and the role of, commercial imagery."   Rumors have been rampant that cuts are in store for the EnhancedView contract under which the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) purchases imagery from the two companies, whose business prospects are highly dependent on the arrangement.  NGA's budget is classified, so detailed information has been difficult to obtain.  Both companies reported earlier this month that their FY2012 EnhancedView funding was secure, but GeoEye's sudden public offer to buy DigitalGlobe, almost immediately rebuffed, fueled concern that the companies' government funding beyond FY2012 was in jeopardy.

Other space-related provisions mentioned in SASC's press release include the following:

  • "Ensures that before any major satellite acquisition program is undertaken schedules are developed that integrate the satellite and its ground systems";
  • "Authorizes private entities using DOD ranges or launch facilities to contribute up-keep and maintenance of the ranges and facilities";
  • "Authorizes the Air Force to procure block buys of satellites 5 and 6 over 6 years, including advanced procurement of 3.9 billion," an apparent reference to Space-Based InfraRed Satellite (SBIRS) geostationary (GEO) satellites; and
  • "Ensures the Department of Defense is represented adequately at all dispute resolution forums for spectrum that it must relocate from."

The press release makes no mention of including language to ease export controls on commercial satellites.   Such a provision was added to the House version of the bill as an amendment during floor debate.   Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) recently introduced a bill with the same goal that theoretically could be offered as an amendment when this bill is considered in the Senate.  The schedule for floor action on this bill was not announced.  

Another First for the Space Program -- First Commercial Spacecraft Joins International Space Station

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-May-2012 (Updated: 25-May-2012 12:24 PM)

Back during the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union were always trying to outdo each other and be "first" at some space technological feat.   Today they are partners in the International Space Station (ISS) along with Canada, Europe and Japan and the "first" claimed today reflects how far the space program has come since then as SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft became the first commercial spacecraft to visit the ISS.

Dragon was built and launched by a U.S. company, SpaceX.  Although NASA funded part of the development costs for Dragon and its Falcon 9 rocket, SpaceX invested its own funds as well. They are generally considered to be commercial vehicles as opposed to the spacecraft and rockets built by U.S. companies in the past through traditional government contracts. 

Aboard ISS is an international crew of American, European and Russian astronauts and cosmonauts.  The ISS is currently under the command of Russia's Oleg Kononenko.   NASA's Don Pettit and Europe's Andre Kuipers were at the controls as Dragon closed in on the ISS and finally was grappled by Pettit using Canada's robotic arm, Canadarm2.

In all, it was a fusing of the public and private sectors and the governments of the ISS partners all working together in harmony to achieve a common goal -- a space "first" of quite a different nature.

NASA and SpaceX took a cautious step-by-step approach as Dragon closed in on ISS today.  At one point SpaceX commanded Dragon to retreat because its LIDAR system was homing in on the wrong retroreflector on ISS.   SpaceX narrowed the field of view of its LIDAR and proceeded.   Dragon was captured by Canadarm2 at Pettit's command at 9:56 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT), about 2 hours later than originally planned.  Pettit exclaimed "looks like we got a Dragon by its tail." 

Photo Credit:  NASA.   Dragon attached to ISS Canadarm2


The berthing of Dragon to the ISS Harmony module was successfully completed at 12:02 pm EDT.  It is the first U.S.-built spacecraft to visit the ISS since the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, last summer.

Dragon is carrying supplies for the ISS crew.   After they are unloaded, Dragon will be filled with items that need to be returned to Earth.  The exact length of time Dragon will remain berthed to ISS is uncertain -- earlier reports said 18 days. but NASA's space station website indicated this morning that it would be one week.   Whenever that occurs, Dragon will detach from the ISS the same way it arrived this morning, fire retrorockets and land in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of the United States and be recovered.  

This mission is a test flight, but assuming all continues to go well, the first commercial resupply flight should not be far behind.  NASA is funding SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. to build space transportation systems to take cargo to the ISS.  Orbital's Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft have not flown yet.   SpaceX had a head start because Orbital replaced another company (Rocketplane Kistler) that failed early in NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.

With the end of the space shuttle program last year, NASA has no ability to take cargo or crews to the ISS.  Russia, Europe and Japan have spacecraft that can take cargo to the ISS, but none can return anything to Earth.   Russia is the only country that can take crews to and from ISS today.

NASA is currently funding four companies -- including SpaceX -- to build commercial crew space transportation systems.  SpaceX plans to outfit the Dragon spacecraft with life support systems to enable crew flights, but such launches are still several years away.   SpaceX plans to offer flights into orbit for anyone able to pay.  At the moment SpaceX says it will charge $140 million per flight.  Each flight can take 7 people, making it $20 million per seat.   The other companies receiving commercial crew funding from NASA are Boeing, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin.

The Obama Administration's decision to turn crew transportation over to the private sector continues to be very controversial.  Congress has not provided as much funding for that aspect of the program as the Obama Administration has requested.   It also wants NASA to choose only one or two companies to support instead of four.   NASA hopes that commercial crew systems will be available by 2017, but that is partially dependent on how much money Congress provides.  Whether today's achievement will instill confidence in SpaceX specifically or the commercial crew effort generally and increase congressional support remains to be seen.  At the moment the House has voted to give NASA only $500 million instead of the $830 million requested for commercial crew for FY2013.  The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $525 million.  Both figures are higher than the $406 million Congress provided for FY2012, but that was less than half of the $850 million NASA requested for that year.

Congressional concerns focus on whether commercial companies will pay as close attention to crew safety as NASA and whether prices will rise substantially if other customers do not materialize and NASA is the only market.  As then-House Science and Technology Committee chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) said when the idea was first broached in 2010, many in Congress worry that these companies will become "too important to fail" as some financial companies were "too big to fail" during the 2008-2009 economic crisis.

For today, however, sighs of relief and smiles of delight are the order of the day as the commercial cargo program, at least, passes one more test.

Events of Interest


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