In 2012, the company Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, went down in history as the first to send a commercial aircraft to the International Space Station, an accomplishment only previously made by four governments, including the US, Russia, Japan, and the European Space Agency. The next attempt from SpaceX will be leaving soon, called the CRS-3 Dragon Resupply Mission, and is slated to launch on March 30 in a nighttime liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
A few months after the CRS-2 mission in 2012, SpaceX won a contract with NASA that was worth $440 million to replace the retired Space Shuttle with the task of transporting American astronauts into orbit. Though it was initially designed to carry humans, as of now Dragon is only capable of holding cargo, but SpaceX is currently making adjustments for the possibility of carrying a crew to the ISS, with the first manned flight scheduled for 2015.
Future modifications on the Dragon will allow it to fit seven astronauts with life-support systems and a cockpit redesigned for human interface with modern technology, as well as a breakthrough propulsive landing system for a comfortable return to earth. Until then, the pressurized capsule and the unpressurized trunk have been constructed with carbon-aluminum honeycomb racks for cargo in a zero-gravity environment and is capable of holding everything from NASA storage containers to biological samples. The Dragon is set to deliver 44,000 pounds into space during the next few years with a contract worth $1.6 billion.
Founded by CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk, SpaceX is a revolutionary company that is owned by its workers, and since 2002 it has tallied more than 40 successful launches into orbit. Using the most advanced rockets known to science while creating the only spacecraft designed entirely in the 21st century, Space Exploration Technologies has managed to stand at the forefront of the privatization of shuttle launches with plans to eventually transport people to other planets.
The Falcon9 rocket that the Dragon freighter connects to has been outfitted with four landing legs, and even the capsule itself was given limbs to enhance its mobility around the International Space Station. The CRS-3 mission for SpaceX will soon deliver about 4,600 pounds of equipment, as well as legs for NASA’s Robonaut 2, optical communications gear, a high-definition camera suite, and other provisions for the six person crews living there, including food, clothing, and spare parts. It will also launch materials for the next 150 science investigations planned for ISS Expeditions 39 and 40.
The President of Space Exploration Technologies, Gwynne Shotwell, said that she is proud to be a part of returning the capacity for reliable spaceflight back to NASA and hopes that their long-term relationship will allow beneficial advancements in orbital research.
While SpaceX is expected to be performing extensive safety tests and assurance analyses to meet NASA’s stringent requirements, the rocket engines will soon be capable of being switched off in an emergency during the multiple stage separations, and will be designed with an engine-out and powered abort capacity during its launch and ascent. With the goal of making Falcon9 and Dragon the safest spacecraft in history, there is little room for error, but if the next launch is as successful as their previous mission, there seems to be no limit to what human ingenuity can accomplish.
By Elijah Stephens