[Satellite News 10-08-12] Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) took a major step forward on the long road to fulfilling its cargo resupply contract with NASA by successfully launching its Dragon spacecraft aboard a Falcon 9 rocket Sunday on the company’s first official resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS).
The SpaceX CRS-1 mission launched on schedule at 8:35 p.m. EST from Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 4, carrying materials to support investigations planned for the station’s Expedition 33 crew, as well as crew supplies and space station hardware.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was on hand during the mission to announce the successful launch. “Just over a year after the retirement of the space shuttle, we have returned space station cargo resupply missions to U.S. soil,” said Bolden.
The Dragon spacecraft was designed with the unique capability to return a significant amount of supplies from space back to Earth. The Dragon involved with Sunday’s launch will attach to the complex Oct. 10 and spend approximately three weeks at the space station before returning with scientific materials and space station hardware. The spacecraft will then be released and parachuted into the Pacific at the end of October.
SpaceX Owner and CTO Elon Musk said the Merlin engine-powered Falcon 9 performed nominally during every phase of the CRS-1 mission, from its approach to orbit, through two stage separations and solar array deployment to the final push of Dragon into its intended orbit.
“We are right where we need to be at this stage in the mission,” said Musk. “We still have a lot of work to do, of course, as we guide Dragon’s approach to the space station. But the launch was an unqualified success.”
The CRS-1 mission follows SpaceX’s demonstration flight in May, when its Dragon became the first commercial spacecraft to attach to the ISS, exchange cargo, and return safely to Earth. Musk said the flight, “signaled restoration of American capability to resupply the space station, not possible since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011.”
NASA has invested heavily into the U.S. private sector launch industry to restore its space station capabilities following the recent retirement of the iconic Space Shuttle.
SpaceX’s business relationship with NASA stems back to 2006 when the company was named a winner under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) competition. The agency then signed a $1.6 billion contract with SpaceX for 12 resupply missions back in December 2008. The contract, which includes options for additional missions at a cumulative total value of up to $3.1 billion, guarantees a minimum of 20,000 kilograms to be carried to the International Space Station. SpaceX provides the necessary services, test hardware and software, and mission-specific elements to integrate cargo with the Dragon delivery capsule. Cargo may include both NASA and NASA-sponsored payloads requiring a pressurized or unpressurized environment.
After launching the Dragon spacecraft to the ISS in May, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell told Satellite News about the relief her company felt after dealing with technical delays. “The joy is pretty indescribable. The job is so difficult; a million things needs to work to be successful and they did,” said Shotwell. “Everything went as it should have. We had an issue. We found and fixed the problem and flew on the very next go. I am very proud of my team for how they handled the situation … Our customers were very supportive of how SpaceX responded. They have universally applauded our patience and maturity to stop the launch, review the issue, find root cause and fix it — rather than allowing launch fever to overtake us.”
Since then, SpaceX scored amajor contract with NASA this past August, inking a $440 million contract to develop the successor to the retired NASA Space Shuttle. SpaceX expects to undertake its first manned flight by 2015 – a timetable that will depend on the continued development of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft combination. SpaceX’s Dragon is initially being used to transport cargo to the ISS, as it developed the original concept for both the capsule and it Falcon 9 launcher to handle manned missions.
“This is a decisive milestone in human spaceflight and sets an exciting course for the next phase of American space exploration,” said Musk. “SpaceX, along with our partners at NASA, will continue to push the boundaries of space technology … We will perform stringent safety and mission-assurance analyses to demonstrate that all these systems meet NASA requirements. With a minimal number of stage separations, all-liquid rocket engines that can be throttled and turned off in an emergency, engine-out capability during ascent, and powered abort capability all the way to orbit, the Falcon 9-Dragon combination will be the safest spacecraft ever developed.”
The company has also had its share of success in the commercial satellite realm, most notably signing the largest commercial launch contract to date with Iridium Communications in June 2010.
Iridium awarded SpaceX $492 million to carry multiple Iridium Next constellation satellites on Falcon 9 rockets over a two-year period starting in early 2015. SpaceX will insert the satellites into a low-earth orbit (LEO) from the Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) in California. Launch services are included in the total estimated cost of $2.9 billion for Iridium Next.
“Two weeks ago, we announced our fixed-price contract with Thales Alenia Space. We also announced our Coface-backed financing plan, and today I am pleased to announce our partnership with SpaceX for extremely cost-effective launch services,” Iridium CEO Matt Desch said in a statement following the contract.
Desch said SpaceX offered dedicated launch slots within its manifest, which currently has 24 Falcon 9 flights scheduled, including those for commercial and government customers, during the next five years. SpaceX launched its debut Falcon-9 rocket on June 4 and achieved Earth orbit, marking a successful inaugural performance for the highly anticipated medium-lift launch vehicle.
SpaceX has also signed commercial launch package contracts with AsiaSat, SES, ABS and Satmex among others.