WASHINGTON – With the successful launch of the Dragon cargo ship, SpaceX engineers and NASA controllers are now focusing on the spacecraft’s readiness to approach and link up with the International Space Station.
If the mission goes as planned, the historic attempt to “berth” the first commercial spacecraft to the space station -- astronauts aboard the orbiting lab would grab the spacecraft and pull it into a docking port – is scheduled to occur on Friday (May 25), SpaceX said after a flawless launch of its Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral on Tuesday morning.
For the next two days, SpaceX engineers will check out Dragon’s systems as it orbits below the space station, a maneuver that allows it to catch up with its target. On Thursday, Dragon’s rendezvous and proximity sensors, communications and other navigation systems will undergo a series of exhaustive tests to determine if it is safe to approach the space station. A series of orbital maneuvers and system checks would then bring the spacecraft within about 1.5 miles of the space station, SpaceX said.
The SpaceX Falcon 9
rocket lifts off from Pad 40 at the Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday (May
22) carrying the Dragon cargo ship to the International Space Station (Source:
NASA officials would then decide on Friday whether the spacecraft was fit to “berth” with the station. Earlier spacecraft like the space shuttle actually docked with the station, but NASA wants astronauts aboard the station to grab the test vehicle with a robotic arm, then attach it to station.
The complexity of the rendezvous and berthing maneuvers accounted for a series of launch delays. SpaceX President President Gwynne Shotwell
said last week that NASA program managers and company engineers spent months validating every line of Dragon’s navigation software code. A chief concern was that Dragon’s systems might interfere with space station equipment during rendezvous maneuvers.
The upcoming tests of the orbiting spacecraft will reveal whether NASA’s software assurance program was successful. SpaceX officials acknowledged again after today’s launch that the berthing maneuver will be a “feat that requires extreme precision.”
Dragon is carrying nonessential supplies to the space station, including clothing and food. If it successfully links up with the space station, it is scheduled to remain attached until May 31 while astronauts unload supplies and load cargo for Dragon’s return to earth.
“We obviously have to go through a number of steps to berth with the space station, but everything is looking really good and I think I would count today as a success no matter what happens with the rest of the mission,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk said in a statement released after the launch. Musk likened the mission to the advent of the Internet in the mid-1990s when private companies shifted many of their operations to the Web.
This week’s mission to the space station is the second demonstration flight under a NASA commercial cargo and crew contract with SpaceX, which became the first private entity to launch and recover a spacecraft in December 2010
The Dragon spacecraft is scheduled to splashdown off the Southern California coast after completing its two-week mission.Click here
to watch video of Tuesday's launch.