SpaceX’s Dragon becomes first private spacecraft to orbit the Earth
This morning (December 8), SpaceX, a privately-held company, successfully test-launched an unmanned version of the next generation of manned spacecraft.
Working with NASA under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, California-based SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft took off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop a Falcon 9 rocket at 10:43 a.m. EST.
It was the first time a private company has orbited and returned a spacecraft, an accomplishment only achieved so far by five nations, plus the European Space agency (Scaled Composites’ SpaceShip One, which won the Xprize in 2004, made a non-orbital, ballistic flight).
The flight comes in the wake of U.S. President Barack Obama’s cancellation of NASA’s Constellation program, which would have replaced the aging Space Shuttle fleet. Constellation, a heavy-lift booster and spacecraft combination, would have supplied the International Space Station (ISS) and provided the capability to return to the moon.
Asking for a "bold new approach to human space flight that embraces commercial industry”, the president called for private companies, such as SpaceX, to provide low-orbit spacecraft to service the ISS and fill the void in government-funded vehicles.
Dragon, built to assume some of the duties of soon-to-be-retired Space Shuttles, offers a number of configurations. It can fly as an unmanned heavy-lift supply ship for the ISS, a seven-person crew transport, or a combination crew/supply ship.
Resembling an Apollo-era spacecraft, Dragon returns to Earth similarly, utilizing parachutes and a water landing in the Pacific. Plans are also in the works to give Dragon a powered descent with a soft landing capability.
Today’s flight saw Dragon complete two orbits at an altitude of almost 300 kilometres and a speed of 27,350 kilometres per hour, followed by a splashdown (the first American water landing since the last Apollo flight in 1975) and safe retrieval off the west coast of Mexico.
Planned flights for next year include unmanned rendezvous and docking tests with the International Space Station, followed by a manned mission.