will attempt the first commercial link-up with the International Space Station (ISS) on Feb. 7, which could be a major milestone on the way to the low-Earth-orbit economy is trying to create.
has authorized the company to attempt rendezvous and berthing with the station in a single flight, instead of two, as originally planned. A SpaceX Falcon 9 launching from Cape Canaveral AFS, Fla., will send a Dragon capsule toward a grapple-and-berth operation at the ISS to clear the way for future commercial cargo deliveries to the orbiting outpost, with commercial crew flights to follow.
Announcement of the launch date signifies resolution of an earlier stumbling block to the attempt. SpaceX had wanted to launch two Orbcomm low-Earth-orbit data-relay satellites as secondary payloads on the Falcon 9, raising concerns the secondaries might hit the station on a later orbit and damage it. The company cut back to one secondary payload, and agreed to deploy it below the station’s orbit.
Post-launch mission plans call for the Dragon to check out its sensors and other systems during a station flyby at a range of about 2 mi., and demonstrate its ability to abort if necessary. If all goes nominally, the commercial cargo craft—which SpaceX says was designed to meet human-rating requirements as well—will make its final approach and be grappled by the ISS crew with the station’s robotic arm for berthing at the nadir side of the Harmony node.
Later the crew will unberth it for reentry, splashdown and recovery off the California coast. It would be the second Dragon to return from orbit, following a successful orbital test flight in December 2010.
“There is still a significant amount of critical work to be completed before launch, but the teams have a sound plan to complete it and are prepared for unexpected challenges,” stated William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations. “As with all launches, we will adjust the launch date as needed to gain sufficient understanding of test and analysis results to ensure safety and mission success.”
If the mission goes as planned, SpaceX will have met its final operational milestone under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) seed-money effort, and be eligible to begin cargo deliveries under its $1.6 billion, 12-flight commercial resupply services contract with the U.S. space agency.
., the other COTS contractor, is preparing to fly its Cygnus cargo carrier atop the new Taurus II launcher from Wallops Island, Va., later in 2012. And executives of SpaceX and other companies working on crew-rated vehicles told a “future-space” conference in Seattle Dec. 9 that they are making progress on their milestones too.
Mark Sirangelo of Sierra Nevada Space Systems says the first flight version of his company’s Dream Chaser spaceplane is being delivered this weekend, with flight test to begin next year. Parachute tests on’s CST-100 capsule will begin soon, according to the company’s Peter McGrath, and Blue Origin, the secretive Seattle startup working on a vertical-takeoff-and-landing commercial crew-delivery spacecraft, is installing a thrust chamber assembly at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, according to Rob Meyerson of the Kent, Wash.-based startup. The BE-3 liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen engine’s combustion chamber and nozzle will be hot-fired at the center’s E-1 test stand.
Philip McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA headquarters, told the conference he expects regular commercial cargo deliveries to the ISS to begin next year, followed in about five years by commercial crew flights. Although it is currently funded only through 2020, McAlister says he expects the station to continue to operate “as long as it is safe and productive,” serving as an anchor destination for a growing space economy in orbit.