A new era of private companies ferrying supplies to the International Space Station is set to begin with the launch of Dragon capsule. It's not run by NASA, but by private enterprise SpaceX.
The US space agency NASA has had one big problem to deal with since it stopped its shuttle flights in July 2011: The United States no longer has a spaceship to carry material or people to the International Space Station (ISS). US astronauts climb into Russian Soyuz capsules to get into space, and when it comes to supplies, the US relies on the small Russian Progress spacecrafts, the Japanese HTV, and Europe's ATV transporters.
The gap that the shuttles left when it comes to getting materials to the ISS is to be filled by the Dragon capsules made by private company SpaceX.
An Internet company doing space travel
SpaceX was founded 10 years ago by businessman Elon Musk, who had earned his fortune with the online pay system PayPal. SpaceX currently employs experienced engineers who used to work for NASA or other air and space companies.
SpaceX's Dragon flight capsule has the shape of a truncated cone, is almost six meters (20 feet) long and has a diameter of 3.5 meters. It has to get right on the orbit of the International Space Station. During the first three flight days, the engineers conducted extensive tests they said showed they can steer the spacecraft.
"The Dragon capsule's flight will actually be a combination of two test flights," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. "They have to show that they are in perfect control of the spacecraft and the capsule has to approach the ISS by a few meters so that the astronauts can catch it with a grappler arm."
The US government said it wants private companies to take over routine transportation into orbit, while NASA will focus primarily on destinations beyond the ISS. NASA is working on a large rocket and a new crewed spacecraft for flights to the moon, to asteroids and to Mars. After SpaceX became the first private company to send a capsule into orbit and bring it back safely to Earth in December 2010.
Bolden said he had high expectations for the upcoming test flight to the ISS: "We're very confident. SpaceX have shown already how to transport something to and from orbit."
Snatching the Dragon
During the complex test maneuver, the Dragon capsule initially has to keep a distance of at least 2.5 kilometers to the space station. Should problems arise, there is a high risk of the capsule colliding with the ISS and endangering the six people on board.
If the initial tests are successful, staff on the ISS will give the green light for the final docking with the space station.
"Then the Dragon capsule can approach the ISS to within a few meters, and the astronauts can snatch it with the help of the space station's grappler and berth it," Bolden said.
Test flights have a high chance of failing, and NASA has consequently loaded the Dragon capsule with little cargo - and there's nothing on board they can't do without. The capsule has a capacity of transporting some three tons of material, but this time it will carry only 500 kilograms of food, clothes, and less important equipment.
After about 10 days docked to the ISS, the Dragon capsule will take off again and carry some 600 kilograms of cargo back to Earth, most of it consisting of tools that are no longer needed and samples of scientific experiments conducted in the ISS laboratories. If successful, SpaceX will carry out 12 more transport flights to ISS, which will cost NASA $1.6 billion (1.26 billion euros) altogether.
Private companies replace state agency
There is now often talk of privatization of space travel. But the Dragon flight is in fact not as new as many observers claim.
"They're calling it commercial, but I would call it industrial because they only have one client - and this client is NASA," said Michael Menking, Director of the ISS at EADS Astrium in Bremen. "I believe the US is on the right track if it's starting to commercialize the business. Developments in Europe are the best proof."
In Europe, private contractors have been building spacecraft and rockets for a long time, such as the Ariane launch services provider or the ATV transporter for the ISS.
The European Space Agency (ESA) buys these services for a fixed sum. This reduces costs; and it means that the companies have to take over a large part of the responsibility for planning and budgeting space travel projects. With the Dragon space transport to the ISS, NASA has now adopted the same approach.
"We don't see the American supply vehicles as competition," Menking said. "We rather consider them partner vehicles which supply the space station together with us and who contribute to research and operation on board the ISS."
"Not just decisive for NASA"
On board the space station everybody's in the same boat - and they all need cargo delivered to the ISS and back to Earth. Transport of material back to Earth in particular is difficult since the shuttle flights were phased out. The Russian Soyuz capsules that take the astronauts back to Earth hold very little cargo. And Europe's ATV and the Japanese HTV space ships are one-way vehicles that burn up in Earth's atmosphere.
"That's why this flight isn't just decisive for NASA but also for its international partners," said. Jan Wörner, head of the German Center for Air and Space Travel DLR. "That's also true for transport of people to the ISS, where we depend entirely on Russian Soyuz capsules at the moment. To be safe it would be good for everybody if we had an alternative in a few years' time."
If the Dragon capsules and the Falcon-9-rockets built by SpaceX prove reliable in routine operation they could eventually be turned into crewed spacecraft. And so maybe in five years' time, the flying dragons could transport people to the ISS.
Author: Dirk Lorenzen / nh
Editor: Sean Sinico