The International Space Station captured the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft at 7:14 this morning while orbiting the earth approximately 260 miles above Egypt. The capture of the spacecraft occurred on schedule and without incident. Houston Mission Control is now tasked with operating the robotic arm protruding from the space station to guide the Dragon into its docking port with the space station.
SpaceX flawlessly launched its Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon on Friday afternoon. The successful launch and coupling represents the company’s third delivery of payload to the space station in a mutually beneficial partnership with NASA. The specific mission goal is to deliver two and a half tons of scientific materials to the International Space Station to assist with various investigations. In addition to food and basic supplies, the payload delivered will be used for experiments on growing plants in space, studying the function of human immune system function and demonstrating laser communications from space. The Dragon is scheduled to remain tethered to the space station for four weeks. Upon release from the station, the craft will be loaded with almost two tons of experimental materials and hardware for return to earth.
The space station crew is composed of Rick Mastracchio and Steve Swanson of the US, Commander Koichi Wakata of Japan, and Alexander Skvortsov, Oleg Artemyev, and Mikhail Tyurin of Russia. Mastracchio, Tyurin and Wakata have been in space for 165 days, while Swanson, Artemyev and Skvortsov have been aloft for 26 days. The space station is a vast structure. The total living area comprises about the same space as a six bedroom house. The total area of the station, which orbits the earth every 90 minutes, is approximately the same as a football field. The capture of the SpaceX Dragon by the giant International Space Station resembles a barracuda swallowing a minnow.
A spacewalk by Swanson and Mastracchio is scheduled for later this week. The goal of the planned two and a half hour venture outside the station is to replace a faulty back-up computer relay box. The crew discovered the relay box was not defective during routine testing on April 11. Both astronauts have spacewalk experience, Mastracchio has done nine walks and Swanson has completed five.
SpaceX reported that the Falcon 9 first stage rocket made a successful splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean on Friday. SpaceX hopes that the rocket can eventually become reusable, thus increasing profitability for each launch. The Falcon 9 was programmed to make two engine burns following decoupling. The first burn is designed to slow the speed of entry into the atmosphere and the second to make a gentle landing. The amount of fuel in the rocket at liftoff included enough to reach the decoupling stage, plus spare fuel for the two burns after decoupling.
Now that the International Space Station has captured the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, the astronauts can continue undertaking their mission with additional supplies. The capture represents an early morning Easter gift for the space station occupants. Hopefully for SpaceX, after securing the Falcon 9, they can determine if the decoupling burns successfully gave them an Easter gift toward their goal of a reusable first stage rocket.
By William Costolo