Private space exploration got a major boost when a commercial spacecraft blasted off into space on Tuesday and will be the first to reach the International Space Station (ISS).
Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, had twice this month been forced to postpone the launch of its Falcon 9 rocket, which carries the Dragon space capsule, but successfully launched the craft at 3:44 a.m. on May 22 from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
SpaceX is the first company to carry out a flight to the ISS, as such missions were commissioned only by the space agencies with the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and the European Union, along with only specific contracted aerospace companies.
“We’re now back on the brink of a new future, a future that embraces the innovation the private sector brings to the table,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden, in a statement released by the agency. “The significance of this day cannot be overstated. While there is a lot of work ahead to successfully complete this mission, we are off to a good start.”
A short while after the launch, SpaceX confirmed in a statement that the Dragon capsule entered its orbit and will undergo tests to see if it can berth with the station.
SpaceX’s launch is said to be the first test of NASA’s project to commission private companies to launch space missions. Last year, NASA did away with its decades-long space shuttle program.
Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, said that SpaceX is indebted to NASA. “I would like to start off by saying what a tremendous honor it has been to work with NASA. And to acknowledge the fact that we could not have started SpaceX, nor could we have reached this point, without the help of NASA,” he said in a statement.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the mission is getting the Dragon to actually berth with the station, but Musk said that he is optimistic it would. NASA said the test would be performed to see if the capsule can move close enough to the ISS before astronauts grab it with a robotic arm and connect it to one of its ports.
“There’s still a thousand things that have to go right, but we are looking forward to this exciting mission,” stated Alan Lindemoyer, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program.
Ultimately, the company’s objective is delivering cargo to the ISS and during the test run, the Dragon is carrying around 1,200 pounds of supplies for the ISS crew members along with experiments. The capsule can carry a maximum weight of around 7,300 pounds, but the company opted to put less weight on it because it is only a test.
If successful, the capsule will remain docked at the ISS for only around three weeks, letting the crew unload supplies and the experiments before it is sent back to Earth, where it will hit somewhere in the Pacific Ocean near California.
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