The journey of the unmanned "dragon" capsule, developed by the californian company spacex, marks the beginning of a new chapter in space travel: if all goes well, it will be the first rendezvous between a commercially produced spacecraft and the ISS.
Representatives of the company and nasa expressed their enthusiasm – but also their caution – at a press conference on friday. "This is an exciting day," said alan lindenmoyer of the u.S. Space agency, which plans to lease "dragon" for future transport flights to the ISS. Then he quickly added that the mission was "extremely complicated" – a journey with many hurdles.
In fact, "dragon" (kite) was supposed to be released as early as 30. November take off, but then the launch was postponed several times for technical reasons. This was above all a test of patience for nasa: since it has mothballed its space shuttles, it has been completely dependent on the russian soyuz capsule as a loaner vehicle.
"Dragon" will only have supplies for the ISS inhabitants on board during the flight; the "dragon" will haul more than 500 kilograms into space. Spacex wants to further develop the capsule so that one day it will also be able to transport humans into space. The goal is to accomplish this by mid-2015, spacex president gwynne shotwell said at the press conference.
But first it was time for the first test flight to the ISS. It is supposed to start on saturday at dawn at 04:00 a.M.55 local time (10.55 a.M. CEST). A falcon 9 rocket, also developed by spacex, will carry the capsule into space from the cape canaveral spaceport (florida). On friday, everything indicated that at least the weather would play along: "we expect favorable conditions," said nasa's joel tumbiolo.
Once the launch is completed, "dragon" will face many nail-biting tests. The docking maneuver after the three-day tour to the ISS is considered to be particularly complicated. Two residents of the station – nasa astronaut don pettit and his colleague andre kuipers from the european space agency (esa) – have to grab the capsule with a robotic arm in the final phase and then attach it by hand to the ISS complex.
The rendezvous with the earth's flying outpost will last for two weeks, then it will head home. Packed heavy again: 600 kilos of mull from the ISS to be brought back by the capsule for disposal on earth. But the "kite" will not have solid ground under his feet for the time being after his return. The plan is to land in the pacific, off the californian coast. A ship will then pick up the capsule and bring it to land.
Spacex is to complete a total of twelve transport flights for nasa. The U.S. Space agency has signed a 1.6 billion dollar (about 1.3 billion euro) contract with the company for this purpose. Other companies are also ready: the american orbital sciences corporation is also planning a first flight to the ISS for the end of this year.
After retiring its own space travelers, nasa is pursuing the ambitious goal of sending humans to an asteroid and then maybe even to mars one day. To that end, she is developing a powerful rocket. The space agency, on the other hand, wants to leave the routine flights to the ISS entirely to commercial providers.