In Historic Space Mission, Launch Is Only The First Test

A successful launch is just the beginning in a series of tests for the private spacecraft set to take off this morning.

The Dragon capsule, perched atop the Falcon 9 rocket, could become the first commercial spacecraft to visit the International Space Station. But even after launch, it will be a few days before the Dragon can berth.

The rocket is scheduled to take off at 4:55 a.m. ET from Cape Canaveral in Florida. We’ll embed NASA’s live stream — coverage starts at 3:30 a.m. ET.

According to SpaceX, the company that owns the rocket, it will take just under 10 minutes for the capsule to reach its preliminary orbit. On day two, Dragon will orbit Earth on its way to the space station. Before docking, which should happen on day four, it has to perform a series of tests and maneuvers to check whether it’s ready for contact. SpaceX says:

“NASA decides if Dragon is allowed to attempt to berth with the station. If so, Dragon approaches; it is captured by station’s robotic arm and attached to the station. This requires extreme precision even as both Dragon and station orbit the Earth every 90 minutes.”

This mission will only involve nonessential cargo, so the six astronauts aboard the space station will be able to get by if they don’t get the goods.

After about two weeks, Dragon should detach and come back to Earth with a splash in the Pacific.

The mission presents challenges from start to finish, The Christian Science Monitor says.

“The mission is technically demanding – cramming into one orbital outing an agenda that the Gemini program in the 1960s took several missions to accomplish.”

A successful mission would set quite a precedent, too. NPR’s Nell Greenfield Boyce reported on the private infusion in the space business Friday:

“The highly anticipated mission could mark the beginning of what some say could be a new era in spaceflight, with private companies operating taxi services that could start taking people to orbit in just a few years.”

As The Associated Press reports, so far only Europe, Russia, Japan and the U.S. have sent spacecraft to the space station.

“There’s no question this is a historic flight,” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said at a news conference Friday, as reported by the AP.

It won’t be the only first for SpaceX, either, as NASA notes. It launched the same rocket and spacecraft in 2010, becoming “the first private organization to launch and recover a spacecraft from Earth orbit.”

SpaceX says the capsule is designed to hold both cargo and people. The AP says the company will stick to supplies for now, but “within three or four years, the goal is to have astronauts on board so Americans no longer have to hitch expensive rides on Russian rockets.”

The NASA space shuttle program ended last summer with the launch of Atlantis. At that point, NASA turned to the private sector for delivery duties, the AP says. SpaceX has been working closely with NASA to prepare for this mission, all the while working through cultural differences between the entities, Greenfield Boyce reports.

One thing both NASA and SpaceX agree on, the AP says, is that this is a test flight. SpaceX says:

“If any aspect of the mission is not successful, SpaceX will learn from the experience and try again.”

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