Yesterday was another big day for SpaceX. For the second time in five months, one of the company’s Dragon capsules has rendezvoused and docked with the International Space Station. The crew has even opened the capsule ahead of schedule. Completing this critical stage of the resupply mission is a significant step as SpaceX moves towards returning regular launch capability to the United States.
Aboard the ISS right now is the Expedition 33 crew. JAXA engineer and astronaut Akihiko Hoshide grappled the capsule with the station’s robotic arm and guided it to the station’s Harmony module. Then, the expedition’s commander Sunita Williams took over and installed the capsule into the station’s berthing mechanism and bolted it into place. The whole operation took less than three hours.
Williams, as Hoshide captured the capsule, made a wonderfully appropriate observation: “Looks like we’ve tamed the Dragon.”
“This is a big moment in the course of this mission and for commercial spaceflight,” said SpaceX CEO and Chief Technical Officer Elon Musk. “We are pleased that Dragon is now ready to deliver its cargo to the International Space Station.”
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden commemorated the important mission in a statement issued after the berthing alluding to a future where the space agency and SpaceX support one another. “This marks the start of a new era of exploration for the United States,” he said, “one where we will reduce the cost of missions to low-Earth orbit so we can focus our resources on deep-space human missions back around the moon, to an asteroid, and eventually to Mars.”
Next, the crew will pressurize the vestibule between the station and Dragon and open the hatch. This Dragon brought a wealth of supplies to the station, nearly a thousand pounds of supplies and gear including crew supplies, vehicle hardware, experiments, and an ultra-cold freezer for storing scientific samples. There are also some less essential items on board, like chocolate-vanilla ice cream and Silly Putty (that isn’t for the crew to play but part of a school science experiment).
The Dragon capsule is expected to stay attached to the ISS for 18 days before its release on October 28. As it demonstrated in May, SpaceX’s Dragon is designed for two-way missions – it brought 1,300 pounds of hardware and science experiments back from the station on that COTS 2/3 mission in May. The same will happen with this mission. Dragon will leave the ISS carrying used station hardware and more than a ton of scientific samples back to Earth. It will splashdown in Pacific Ocean off the coast of southern California the same day. Recovery crews will pull it out of the ocean.
This mission, formally named SpaceX CRS-1, is the first of at least 12 resupply missions SpaceX will launch under the $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract in holds with NASA. This mission’s berthing, and the overall success it’s experienced so far, suggest a bright future for the California company.