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US launches first commercial cargo ship to the space station

Charles Black, Founder and CEO of Sen
Oct 8, 2012, 7:00 UTC

Sen—SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Launch Complex 40 of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, at 8.35pm EDT on October 7, successfully sending the Dragon cargo ship on course to the International Space Station (ISS).

The mission, SpaceX CRS-1, marks the US's capability to recommence cargo supplies to the ISS, something it has not been able to do since the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in 2011. It's the first contracted mission by SpaceX, a private company to whom NASA has outsourced the supply.

Weather conditions at Cape Canaveral remained favourable and the launch went off at the scheduled time, 8.35pm EDT  (01.35 GMT on October 8). Elon Musk, SpaceX's founder and CEO said: "Falcon 9 rocket booster has delivered Dragon to its target orbit! We are right where we need to be at this stage in the mission. We still have a lot of work to do, of course, as we guide Dragon’s approach to the space station. But the launch was an unqualified success."

The Dragon spacecraft is due to berth with the ISS on October 10. On arriving at the orbiting complex, Dragon will be grappled by the station's robotic arm, Canadarm2, operated by Expedition 33 astronauts Aki Hoshide and Sunita Williams. The astronauts will guide Dragon to the Earth-facing side of the station’s Harmony module. Once connected to Harmony's Common Berthing Mechanism it will be bolted in place for its stay at the ISS.

Dragon is carrying almost a tonne of supplies including clothing and food for the astronauts. Also aboard are many experiments and equipment for such, including 23 experiments designed by students taking part in the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program. 

Dragon will remain berthed with the orbiting laboratory for about two weeks and return to Earth in late October when it will splash down in the ocean off the coast of southern California. It will return a number of experiments as well as unwanted hardware and rubbish.

This was the fourth successful launch of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, the first stage being powered by nine Merlin engines - one of which shut off early. However, the rocket's systems recognised that one of the engines had shut down and compensated for it, placing Dragon into the right orbit. The launcher had its maiden flight in June 2010. In December 2010 Falcon 9 flew again, putting Dragon into orbit. The flight was the first demonstration mission under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Program. Under COTS, SpaceX also had to demonstrate that Dragon could deliver supplies to the ISS, a goal achieved in May this year when it became the first commercial spaceship to berth with the ISS.

Having completed its NASA Space Act Agreement under COTS, SpaceX was declared ready to begin its contracted supply missions. The company, founded in 2002 by entrepreneur Elon Musk, was awarded a $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract by NASA back in December 2008 for 12 cargo missions to the space station. The current mission, labelled CRS-1, is the first of the 12 contracted missions.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said of the launch: "Just over one year after the retirement of the space shuttle, we have returned space station cargo resupply missions to U.S. soil and are bringing the jobs associated with this work back to America. The SpaceX launch tonight marks the official start of commercial resupply missions by American companies operating out of U.S. spaceports like the one right here in Florida."

A successful delivery will be very significant for NASA which has been backing private companies to fulfil the US's obligations to transport cargo and crew to the space station. Whilst the shuttles have been making their way to museums around the country, NASA has provided funds and support to two companies that have contracts to deliver cargo to the orbiting outpost - SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (Orbital). Orbital, which was selected in 2008 under the COTS program, is planning the maiden flight of its Antares rocket by the end of the year and a demonstration flight of its Cygnus spacecraft to the space station early next year.

NASA are also supporting SpaceX's development of a crewed version of Dragon and recently awarded SpaceX with $440m of funding under its Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) Program. NASA is also supporting Boeing, which is developing the Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100, and Sierra Nevada Corporation which is building its Dream Chaser crewship. Once these crewships are operating, the US will be able to outsource crew transportation, as well as cargo, to the space station.

In addition to Dragon, other cargo vessels that resupply the orbiting complex are Russia's Progress spacecraft, Europe's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and Japan's H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) known as Kounotori.