On Wednesday October 10th, 2012, two and a half days after it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida atop a Falcon 9 rocket, Dragon the first commercial cargo spacecraft was carefully snared in by a robotic arm and 'tamed' by the scientists aboard the International Space Station.
This was not the first time the spacecraft, manufactured by Southern California based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has made the journey to the Space Station. In May this year, it successfully completed a test flight and while it did not carry any cargo up, it did return with 1,400 pounds of old Space equipment and a few experiments.
This time around however, it carried with it 882 pounds of supplies for the scientists, which included amongst other things - chocolate vanilla swirl ice cream - A treat so rare that even Station commander Sunita Williams could not hide her delight when she conveyed her gratitude for the delivery with this one-liner - 'Thanks to everyone at SpaceX and NASA for bringing her (Dragon) to us … and the ice cream."
Dragon is scheduled to return to earth on October 28th, carrying about 1600 pounds of cargo comprising of old station hardware and thousands of scientific samples that include 384 syringes of urine and 112 tubes of blood that the astronauts on the International Space Station have been collecting since July 2011, when Atlantis the last of NASA's space shuttle made its final visit there.
The eagerly awaited samples will help Dr. Scott Smith, NASA's lead scientist at the Nutritional Biochemistry Lab and his team of researchers continue a variety of tests into astronaut health and nutrition and is part of NASA's long term study about how the human body withstands long stretches in a zero gravity environment. Knowing that is the only way the scientists will able to develop a diet and exercise regimen that will allow astronauts to remain healthy on longer missions, like the one planned to Mars. As the scientist succinctly puts it, while to the rest of us receiving those samples is an 'eww' moment, to him it is like receiving a shipment of gold!
Dragon's successful unmanned mission, is the first of 12 planned under a $1.6 billion contract NASA has signed with the privately owned SpaceX to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. And, while they are the first to fulfill a portion of their contract, they are not the only ones. Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corporation has a $1.9 billion USD contract for eight resupply missions - Given that they haven't even launched their first test rocket yet, they still have to prove that they can do it.
In addition to cargo, SpaceX is also planning manned missions in the Dragon, by 2015. Built to accommodate up to seven astronauts, the spacecraft features state of the art technology and is therefore much more economical than Soyuz, the Russian spacecraft that NASA is currently using to transport astronauts back and forth from the ISS. Each trip aboard the Soyuz sets NASA back $70 million USD. In contrast, the SpaceX shuttle will cost a mere $20 million per astronaut!
And, that's not all. Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX has even bigger plans - To build a spacecraft that can take men on a mission to the moon and even, to the Red Planet.
Resources: chicagotribune.com, foxnews.com, scpr.com