December 8, 2010

SpaceX Successfully Launches Dragon Capsule

SpaceX successfully launched a space capsule into orbit and back on Wednesday, making it the first attempt by a private enterprise and a major milestone in the future of space travel.

The Dragon spacecraft blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida on a Falcon 9 rocket.

The capsule entered orbit about 10 minutes later, then circled the Earth twice before re-entering the atmosphere from low orbit, and splash landing into the Pacific Ocean.

"The SpaceX Dragon Spacecraft has successfully splashed down in the ocean. Mission success!" NASA tweeted moments after the company confirmed Dragon had made a soft landing in the ocean well west of the Mexican coast.

No one was aboard the Dragon space capsule, but it has room for seven member crew and an ample cargo hold that could supply the International Space Station, after NASA closes down its space shuttle program for good next year.

In the absence of astronauts, the "Dragon capsule is carrying a few thousand patches, employee badges for the SpaceX company and some other mementos," NASA said.

The operation aimed to showcase the capsule's ability to launch and separate from the Falcon 9 rocket, orbit Earth, transmit signals and receive commands, then make it back intact.

The next step for the Dragon will be a fly-by of the ISS as part of a five-day mission in which the spacecraft will approach the orbiting station within six miles.

An actual cargo and crew mission to the ISS is scheduled to take place in 2011.

However, the company was not overly optimistic that all would go according to plan in its demonstration launches, projecting only a 70 percent likelihood of success.

A couple of glitches delayed the launch, including a crack in the engine nozzle that was discovered on Monday and the first attempt Wednesday morning was aborted just moments before liftoff for reasons that remain unclear.

NASA signed a $1.6 billion contract with SpaceX in December 2008 under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to provide 12 spacecraft with cargo capacity of at least 20 tons to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) through 2016.

NASA also signed a $1.9 billion contract with Orbital Space Corporation for eight launches of its Taurus II rocket starting in 2011.

SpaceX's Gwynne Shotwell said her company has poured over $600 million into the test flight efforts so far and received $278 million from NASA. 

"I bristle a little bit at the whole concept of 'cutting corners,' " she told The Associated Press this week. "Just because it's faster doesn't mean it's more risky."

President Barack Obama hopes the private sector will help fill the gap that will open when the space shuttle fleet is retired.


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