Jason DavisJul 29, 2011

What's up in human spaceflight: a Dragon approaches

It's been hardly a week since the space shuttle Atlantis touched down at Kennedy Space Center, retiring the prevailing symbol of human spaceflight. With only Russia's Soyuz capsules currently available to ferry crews to the International Space Station (ISS), the so-called private space race is heating up. Commercial successors to America's presence in space are jockeying for position, and if all goes well, we could yet witness the docking of a private, re-usable spacecraft with the orbiting outpost this year.

Disclosure reminder: SpaceX's founder, Elon Musk, is a current member of the Planetary Society's Board of Directors.

As the only private company to have thus far orbited Earth with a spacecraft and returned it safely to Earth, SpaceX has secured the tentative approval to combine its next test flight with an actual ISS docking. The flight will begin November 30, when their Falcon 9 rocket blasts a Dragon capsule into orbit. The capsule will dock with the space station a week later on December 7.

Previously, the SpaceX timeline called for a Dragon capsule to approach the station but not actually dock before a mission with an actual docking was attempted. The new plan will also include the transfer of some cargo from the Dragon to the station. Atlantis' delivery of supplies from the Raffaello logistics module two weeks ago stocked the ISS with a year of supplies, but NASA is eager to get the commercial spaceflight program into service as quickly as possible.

If SpaceX accomplishes its mission successfully, the feat will likely go a long way in assuaging critics' concerns about this new direction in low-Earth orbit space travel.

In Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) news, United Launch Alliance (ULA) has entered into a new, unfunded partnership with NASA to prepare the veteran space company's Atlas V rockets for human spaceflight. ULA has enjoyed enormous success with the rocket system, which is routinely used to put NASA probes and commercial satellites into orbit. The company didn't receive funding in round two of the CCDev program, since funds were only dished out to companies with crew capsule designs on the drawing board. Boeing, SpaceX, and Blue Origin are developing capsules, and Sierra Nevada is working on a space plane called the Dream Chaser.

Only SpaceX has a rocket to go with their capsule — the other three companies will need a rocket for their lift into orbit. ULA received funding in CCDev round one for an emergency abort system that sends astronauts safely away from a failing rocket stack. Now, the company will partner with NASA to get their rockets green-lighted for human transport, clearing the way for future partnerships with commercial companies seeking help to get their capsules into space.

NASA's Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), the space agency's current successor to the space shuttle, is now undergoing splashdown tests. The tests are meant to simulate the force of impact from a parachute-controlled water landing, and are being conducted in the Hydro-Impact Basin at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA. Striking the water at 40 kilometers per hour (24 miles per hour), the MPCV seemed to fare well, bobbing to a stop at the end of the basin's 1 million gallon pool. NASA engineers are planning more drop tests for later this summer at higher speeds.


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