Under the Dragon’s Wing: Commercial Spacecraft Completes Historic Mission

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft floats in the Pacific Ocean after completing a successful nine day mission. Photo Credit: SpaceX/Michael Altenhofen

The historic mission of Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX’s) Dragon spacecraft wrapped up today at 11:42 a.m. EDT when the capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean just off the Coast of Baja, California. The mission was wrapped up in nine days seven hours and 58 minutes – shorter than what was originally planned (the mission was originally slated to last somewhere between 17-18 days). By all appearances the mission was a complete success, meaning that an additional demonstration flight is unlikely to be needed.

According to NASA’s Rob Navias the reason why the mission was cut shorter than planned owes to a period of beta angle cutout that would have opened in early June as well as the need to have Dragon splashdown under daylight conditions.

The Dragon's mission was cut slightly short due to a beta angle cutout that was approaching in early June as well as the need to land the spacecraft in daylight conditions. Photo Credit: NASA

The beta angle that Navias mentions essentially determines the amount of time that a spacecraft spends in sunlight. With a spacecraft that is powered by solar arrays – this becomes a critical factor. NASA’s Administrator, Charles Bolden expressed his thoughts in a NASA press release.

Expedition 31 crew member helped to guide in the first commercial spacecraft to visit the International Space Station when it arrived on May 25. Photo Credit: NASA

“Congratulations to the teams at SpaceX and NASA who worked hard to make this first commercial mission to the International Space Station an overwhelming success,” Bolden said. “This successful splashdown and the many other achievements of this mission herald a new era in U.S. commercial spaceflight. American innovation and inspiration have once again shown their great strength in the design and operation of a new generation of vehicles to carry cargo to our laboratory in space. Now more than ever we’re counting on the inventiveness of American companies and American workers to make the International Space Station and other low Earth orbit destinations accessible to any and all who have dreams of space travel.”

With its mission completed, Dragon will be ferried back to shore near Los Angeles. From there it will be prepared for a return journey to SpaceX’s test facility located in MacGregor, Texas. Some of the cargo that the Expedition 31 crew placed within Dragon will be returned to NASA within 24 hours. The rest will stay with Dragon on its trip to Texas.

Dragon carried 1,014 pounds of cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) – this was a taste of things to come. Under the Commercial Resupply Services contract that SpaceX has with NASA, the NewSpace firm is scheduled to launch twelve resupply flights to the ISS. The total worth of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services or “COTS” contract is approximately $1.6 billion.

The Expedition 31 crew, including European Space Agency's Andre Kuipers, seen here, unloaded the Dragon's supplies and filled the spacecraft with used experiments, equipment and trash for the return to Earth. The crew commented that the craft had a "new car" smell. Photo Credit: NASA

Dragon delivered a wide range of supplies to the orbiting laboratory. Food, clothes, equipment and experiments were all on the capsule’s manifest. None of these were critical as it was not known if the mission would be as big of a success as it turned out to be. Dragon returned a total of 1,367 pounds of supplies from the space station back to Earth.

SpaceX has managed to accomplish task-after-task. Becoming the first private company to send a spacecraft to orbit and return it safely to Earth (only the U.S., Russia, Japan and the European Space Agency or ESA have been able to this before SpaceX’s feat. On this mission even more milestones laid out in front of the company. Send a spacecraft to orbit, have it deploy solar arrays, rendezvous with the space station, maneuver around the station, be grappled by the ISS’s Canadarm 2 and be berthed to the Harmony module on the Earth-facing side of the space station.

Dragon was grappled on May 25 after it had spent three days getting used to the space environment and conducting maneuvers around the space station. Photo Credit: NASA

Finally, the last major milestone was met this weekend when the Dragon’s hatch was open and the space station’s crew ventured inside. Its primary objectives met, the Dragon was unberthed and allowed to return to Earth.

This mission was, in essence, a two-for one. The original timeline would have had SpaceX just conduct a rendezvous – and then depart. SpaceX lobbied for and received permission to combine the objectives under both the second and third COTS demonstration flights – into a single mission. As of today – it appears that all of the major milestones under both of these demonstration flights have been met. NASA will evaluate the data from the Dragon over the course of the next few weeks to ensure that this has been accomplished. If it has? The next mission SpaceX will fly will be a fully-operational resupply mission.

Space Exploration Technologies' Dragon spacecraft completed its historic mission and returned safely to the Earth this morning at 11:42 a.m. EDT. Now NASA and SpaceX have to review the data retrieved to determine how to best proceed with cargo - and potentially crewed missions on board Dragon. Photo Credit: NASA

SpaceX launched Dragon atop one of the company’s Falcon 9 rockets on May 22 at 3:44 a.m. after several delays and an abort 0.5 seconds into the flight. This marks the third flight of the Falcon 9 and the second flight of the Dragon spacecraft. Both Falcon 9 and Dragon are human-rated and could send astronauts to orbit in the near future.

SpaceX has entered into a number of contracts to use the company’s Falcon 9 rocket to loft payloads into orbit. Besides the cargo contract it has with NASA, the Hawthorne, Calif-based company is also a participant in the Commercial Crew Development program, more commonly known as CCDev. The completion of this mission is a positive step forward for both SpaceX’s cargo and crewed objectives.

The Dragon, its mission complete, is unberthed from the ISS fro the return trip to Earth. Other cargo vessels burn up in Earth's atmosphere. Not so with Dragon which splashes safely down in the ocean where it can be recovered and reused. Photo Credit: NASA


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  1. So Elon says within 3 to 5 years they will have “propulsed landing” or powered landing under retro rockets….How cool is that… Is Nasa doing that through any of the Legacy companies??? Anyone

  2. I do wonder now if Armstrong, Lovell, and Cernan will re-evaluate their opinions of SAAs?

The Dragon is Coming in for a Landing

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