SpaceX Dragon Begins Initial ISS Mission Under $1.6 Billion NASA Resupply Contract

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SpaceX's Falcon 9/Dragon Commercial Resupply Services 1 mission lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., late Sunday, signaling the restoration of a regular U. S. International Space Station re-supply and cargo return capability lost with retirement of NASA's long-running shuttle program in July 2011.

SpaceX CRS-1 mission to the space station departs Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for a successful start. Image Credit: NASA TV

The launch trajectory and a series of maneuvers by the unpiloted Dragon should place the CRS-1 freighter in a position to rendezvous with the station and its three-member crew early Wednesday.

The planned three-week flight marks the first of a dozen missions the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company plans to carry out under a $1.6 billion NASA Commercial Resupply Services agreement signed in December 2008.  Since the shuttle's retirement, NASA has relied on Russian, European and Japanese spacecraft to keep the station and its astronauts stocked with food, clothing, spare parts and research gear.

Dragon is unique among the international fleet in its ability to return medical specimens and station hardware in need of refurbishment back to Earth.

"It's really critical," said Mike Suffredini, NASA's ISS program manager, as CRS-1 neared lift off. "This is a keystone that will allow the station to do what it’s supposed to do."

The two-stage Falcon 9 booster rose from Launch Complex 40 at 8:35 p.m., EDT, climbing through darkened skies on a northeasterly course. Several days of stormy weather in the region cleared sufficiently earlier in the day with the advance of a slow-moving cool front.

However, there was an anomaly on engine 1 of the nine-engine first stage that prolonged the ascent briefly while still delivering Dragon close to the target orbit.

Dragon and its near-1,000 pound cargo settled into an initial 123 by 205-statute mile orbit as the capsule separated smoothly from the Falcon 9 second stage nearly 10 minutes into flight. Solar array deployment followed on schedule.

"I have no data on it," SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell, told a NASA hosted post-launch news briefing. "But the Falcon 9 is designed to lose engines and still make mission. So, it did what it was supposed to do.  If you do have an issue with an engine, you end up burning longer."

Aboard the station, commander Sunita Williams, of NASA, and flight engineer Akihiko Hoshide, of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, will be positioned in the Cupola observation deck at the controls of Canada's robot arm as Dragon approaches.  Once Dragon is within reach of the 58-foot-long mechanical limb, the two astronauts will grapple and berth the capsule to the U.S. segment Harmony module.

The grapple time is scheduled for Wednesday at 7:23 a.m., EDT.

As the CRS-1 freighter is off loaded, the spacecraft will be re-loaded with more than 1,200 pounds of frozen biomedical specimens, research gear and equipment headed back to Earth.

Current scheduling calls for Dragon to depart the orbiting science lab on Oct. 28,  followed by a same-day parachute descent into the Pacific Ocean about 250 miles off the Southern California coast. Space X recovery ships will be standing by.

Each of the Dragon mission milestones was successfully demonstrated in May during NASA's final SpaceX Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems program flight.

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