With SpaceX In Flight, What's Next For NASA

The Dragon spacecraft faces a series of tricky tests and maneuvers as it heads to the International Space Station.
NASA's Next Mission: Deep Space
NASA's Next Mission: Deep Space
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The successful launch of Space Exploration Technologies' Falcon 9 rocket on May 22 was a key milestone in the commercialization of the U.S. space program. Next, a series of technical challenges lies ahead for the SpaceX mission, to be followed by two other commercial launches this year.

Following an aborted attempt three days earlier, SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket, carrying 1,200 pounds of cargo in the company’s Dragon space capsule. The spacecraft is headed to the International Space Station, where it will dock on May 25 if all goes as planned.

Liftoff was at 3:44 a.m. from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, according to NASA, which is partnering with SpaceX under the space agency’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. SpaceX CEO and chief designer Elon Musk drew a parallel between this effort and the commercialization of the Internet in the mid-1990s.

Next the SpaceX vehicle must navigate a series of technical challenges on its way to the International Space Station and back. On May 23, the spaceship will orbit Earth on its way to the ISS. The following day, the Dragon's sensors and flight systems will be subjected to a series of "complicated tests" and maneuvers as the vehicles approaches the ISS.

On May 25, if all goes as planned, Dragon will be attached with the ISS with the help of a robotic arm. For the next few days, astronauts are scheduled to unload the cargo, which consists mostly of food and clothing, and load up with return cargo. The capsule, which also contains experiments designed by students, is capable of carrying up to 7,300 pounds, NASA said.

The capsule is scheduled to return to Earth and splash down in the Pacific Ocean, west of California, on May 31.

A secondary payload, carried in a separate part of the Dragon rocket, contains the ashes of more than 300 people, including actor James Doohan, who played chief engineer Montgomery Scott in the original Star Trek television series and movies.

This flight marks SpaceX's second demonstration flight under a 2006 agreement with NASA to develop the capability to transport cargo to and from the ISS. If successful, SpaceX will begin a $1.6 billion contract to fly 12 cargo missions to the ISS.

Two more flights are planned this year this year under NASA's COTS program, both with Orbital Sciences Corp. Like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, Orbital Sciences' Antares vehicle is being developed for the purpose of resupplying the ISS. A test flight of the Antares is tentatively scheduled for June. That will be followed by a demonstration flight of Orbital Sciences' cargo-carrying Cygnus spacecraft on an Antares launch vehicle, targeted for September.

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