SpaceX, the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company founded a decade ago by modern-day industrialist (and “Iron Man”-inspiration) Elon Musk, is preparing to embark on its first official cargo resupply and transfer mission to the International Space Station late on Sunday evening.
If that all sounds familiar, it should: SpaceX in May became the first company in history to complete a “berthing,” or an unpowered docking, of a privately-owned spacecraft with the International Space Station. SpaceX’s unmanned Dragon capsule completed the procedure on May 25 at 9:56 a.m. EDT.
That mission was a decisive and emotional one for Musk, who also serves as the company’s chief technology officer, and the rest of SpaceX’s 1,800-plus employees, as it was necessary to move forward with its $1.6 billion NASA contract for 12 cargo resupply missions using SpaceX’s Dragon.
Here’s a photo of that historic rendezvous taken from the International Space Station:
The docking also came after vocal doubts and even criticisms of SpaceX’s ambitions to usher in a new era of commercial spaceflight, including some from NASA Apollo moon mission astronauts Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan.
To Musk’s credit, following the successful first docking test, he told Forbes:
“I think there was reason to doubt that we would succeed because there’s not a lot of precedent for what we’ve done,” Musk said. “This is the first time that a commercial company has done such a thing. So for those who doubted they had their reasons for doubting for lack of precedence, but I think those reasons no longer remain, having done what we’ve done. I am hopeful that a lot of people’s doubts will be put to rest and that we can hopefully look for their support going forward.”
Support or not, SpaceX and NASA are certainly going forward: The inaugural cargo run for SpaceX’s Dragon craft is set for an 8:35 p.m. EDT launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, with a backup launch window scheduled for Monday, should the weather prove to be uncooperative (right now there’s about a 60 percent chance the weather will be good enough to launch on time, with a 20 percent chance of showers or thunderstorms just around launch time.)
Check out the following NASA photo of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which will carry its Dragon craft into orbit, undergoing pre-launch prep at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station:
“It’s going to be a very exciting night on Sunday. I always get kind of nervous before these flights, thinking you know, ‘what have we missed?’….It’s possible something goes wrong Sunday. That’s always a possibility.” Musk said in a Google Plus Hangout video chat with NASA administrator Charles Bolden streamed on the Web on Friday, “But I feel like we’ve done everything we can to make the mission as successful as possible.”
Watch the full 30-minute long Google Plus Hangout with SpaceX’s Elon Musk and NASA administrator Charles Bolden below:
Musk offered a similarly cautionary note ahead of SpaceX’s initial test launch for the berthing mission to the International Space Station in May.
Alex Saltman, executive director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a lobbying organization that represents SpaceX and other would-be spacefaring companies, said that no matter what happens with SpaceX’s first cargo resupply mission, the ball was already rolling on a future of privatized spaceflight.
“The success of this contract will be judged on the results of all twelve launches in SpaceX’s NASA contract, and the success of the industry on the results of many more,” Saltman told TPM in an email.
SpaceX’s Dragon capsule will be launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. aboard SpaceX’s own Falcon 9 rocket. The capsule itself, called the Dragon C3, will be carrying over 1,000 pounds of cargo, including 23 science experiments from students across the country, as well as other equipment necessary to conduct 166 experiments aboard the International Space Station.
Shortly after launch, the Dragon capsule will detach from the Falcon 9 booster rocket, which will plunge harmlessly into the ocean to be retrieved. Eleven minutes after launch, the Dragon capsule will deploy its solar panels and initiate tests of its rendezvous sensors, according to NASA.
The spacecraft is due to berth with the International Space Station — that is, move to a position in which it can be grappled and pulled toward the station by the station’s robotic arm — on Wednesday.
The Dragon C3 will remain docked to the station for three weeks, with a planned return date for “late October,” at which point the Dragon will decouple from the station, boost itself back into Earth’s atmosphere and parachute back down into the Pacific Ocean, to be retrieved by SpaceX. The return flight will also carry some 734 pounds of equipment back to Earth, 504 pounds of which will be space station hardware and the rest finished experiments.
Check out another photo of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster rocket undergoing pre-launch prep posted Friday on Google Plus by SpaceX:
During the May test flight, the Dragon also carried and returned cargo, but NASA noted in a press release Friday that this time, “Dragon will be filled with an amount of cargo suitable for an operational mission. The prior flight carried just enough items to prove the capsule would do its job as a cargo hauler.”
The cargo this time around also includes “a freezer for the station’s scientific samples” and “a powered middeck locker with an experiment inside along with a variety of materials for the astronauts living and working on the space station.”
NASA is looking to SpaceX and a short-list of other companies to become its de-facto mode of transportation for not only cargo, but eventually crew, to the International Space Station and low-earth orbit. Following the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in the summer of 2011, NASA’s only mode of transportation for crew to the International Space Station has been the Russian Soyuz vessels, which are extremely costly at upwards of $60 million per seat. SpaceX says it can provide the same service for $20 million a seat.
But that’s still quite a ways off, as Musk and Bolden acknowledged in their Friday Google Plus Hangout.
Musk said SpaceX was “aiming to do, probably, initially an orbital flight — that just goes to orbit and then returns to Earth with people on board” in three to four years, and “then to actually take astronauts all the way to the space station in about four years.”
Though SpaceX is privately owned and operated, Musk also acknowledged that “SpaceX and NASA collaborate really every day. There are NASA personnel at SpaceX and SpaceX personnel at NASA. So it’s really great we’re working with NASA.”
Launching our Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft to the Space Station on Sunday at 8:35pm EST! twitter.com/elonmusk/statu…— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 2, 2012
Correction: This article originally incorrectly identified astronaut Eugene Cernan’s first name as “Neil.” The error has since been corrected in copy and we regret it.