A private spaceship, built by the company Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, California, is soon heading for the International Space Station. The launch is planned for April 30, and if successful will mark a historic event, making SpaceX’s Dragon the first commercial American robotic spacecraft to have ever flown and dock with the International Space Station.
The unmanned capsule, named Dragon, will be the first of a new fleet of commercial spacecraft being developed to deliver cargo to the station. The spacecraft will on this first test-run rendezvous with the space station and then be captured by astronauts, operating a robotic arm and offload some cargo. If SpaceX’s April test flight goes according to plans, another Dragon capsule will make the first official cargo delivery run in August.
SpaceX aims to become the first private company to launch a spacecraft toward the orbiting lab under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. The intention is to spur on the development of American private vehicles to take over the duties of the NASA’s retired space shuttle fleet. SpaceX is however not the only company joining the new private space effort. NASA has also awarded a contract to Orbital Sciences of Dulles, Virginia, under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Orbital’s Cygnus vehicle could make its first launch to the space station on September 1, with a docking planned September 6, according to NASA’s space station program director Mike Suffredini.
When NASA retired their space shuttle fleet in July 2011, the International Space Station has relied on international partners like Russia, Japan and the European Space Agency to launch cargo and crew to the space station. “Getting the commercial sector involved, I think it’s a good thing. It opens up new doors. I’m looking forward to that very much”, said astronaut Akihiko Hoshide of Japan, that will lift off to ISS with a Russian Soyuz spacecraft July 15. NASA currently have no new space shuttles of their own that are ready to replace the retired fleet.
The Dragon capsule will launch with a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. If everything goes well, it will fly up to the ISS, conduct tests and then dock there May 3. It will carry food, supplies and scientific experiments up to the space station. If this test-run is successful, Dragon could start making regular cargo runs for NASA later this year according to SpaceX officials.