SpaceX to Launch to ISS this Weekend

Dragon spacecraft to attempt the first commercial trip to space station.

SpaceX Dragon

SpaceX Dragon

** In preparation for the launch, the Falcon 9 rocket
fires all 9 engines for 2 seconds as part of a
day-long simulation of launch day.**
SpaceX

SpaceX is slated to launch its unmanned Dragon spacecraft to the international space station this weekend for what will mark the first time a commercial vehicle has made the trip, if all goes according to plan.

Final preparations are currently under way at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Central Florida, where engineers are readying a Falcon 9 rocket – a 10-engine vehicle able to generate one million pounds of thrust in a vacuum – to power the Dragon into orbit.

After the launch, the Dragon is scheduled to reach preliminary orbit in less than 10 minutes before embarking on a series of intricate flight patterns and tests, which will include an ISS “fly-under,” GPS testing and a free drift demo, among other activities.

If all runs smoothly and the Dragon’s capabilities are up to snuff, those tests will culminate in a docking with the ISS, where crewmembers will inspect and interact with the aircraft, in addition to retrieving the 1,000 pounds of non-critical cargo it will be carrying. The Dragon will depart for re-entry two weeks later, ultimately landing a few hundred miles off the coast of Southern California.

Despite the Dragon’s intensively planned itinerary, however, SpaceX readily admits the risks inherent in the mission and have publicly acknowledged that success is not guaranteed.

“All spaceflight is incredibly complicated, and this flight introduces a series of new challenges – it is only the third flight of the Falcon 9 rocket, the second of the Dragon capsule, and the first for a number of all-new components necessary to berth with the International Space Station. If any aspect of the mission is not successful, SpaceX will learn from the experience and try again,” a company statement recently said.

The mission – scheduled for an early Saturday morning launch with a May 22 backup date – is the result of a $1.6 billion contract awarded to SpaceX by NASA for 12 cargo runs to the ISS.

In addition to fulfilling the terms of that contract, SpaceX is working on a manned version of the Dragon spacecraft after winning a $75 million NASA grant in pursuit of the effort. Since the shuttle fleet retired last summer, the agency has been relying on Russia to ferry U.S. astronauts to the ISS at a rate of $60 million per trip.

Space enthusiasts throughout the country will be watching the outcome of Saturday’s attempt, likely looking for a sign as to whether that trend will be reversed anytime in the near future.