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April 23, 2012

T-Minus 7 Days to SpaceX Demo Flight for ISS Resupply Trip

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

SpaceX (News - Alert) has cleared NASA's final flight readiness review and stands ready to conduct its second NASA Commercial Orbital Transportations Services (COTS) launch on Monday, April 30. The COTS 2/3 mission is scheduled to demonstrate the commercial company's ability to provide supply services for the International Space Station (ISS).

A Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon capsule and service module will lift off from Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:22 P.M. EST, assuming no last minute glitches or weather problems. If the launch doesn't hit that window, SpaceX will reset and try again three days later.

Objectives for the flight include a full test series of all systems for the Dragon cargo carrying capsule, including a rendezvous and berthing with the space station. Day 3 of the flight will include a fly "under" of ISS at a distance of 1.5 miles to validate the operation of sensors and flight systems necessary for a safe rendezvous and approach to the station, plus a demonstrated abort from the trip.

Flight Day 4 will then be the actual rendezvous of the Dragon spacecraft to the station. Dragon will slowly close to within grabbing distance of the space station's robotic arm, where it grabbed and pulled into berthed to ISS. Later that day, the crew will open the hatch of Dragon, hold a ceremony to mark the occasion, likely present something "cool" from the cargo, and start unloading food and some other non-critical supplies.

About 20 days later, the capsule will unberth, re-entry and then splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. 

If all goes well, SpaceX and NASA will both have several monkeys off of their backs. SpaceX will be able to send regular runs to ISS under the Commercial Resupply Service (CRS) contract and start getting paid for delivering supplies, while NASA will be able to boast that it now has at least one U.S.-flagged commercial vendor able to provide supply services.  

SpaceX hopes it can get in a pair of supply flights by the end of the year.

Launched in 2006 with contract awards made in 2008, the two COTS/CRS vendors have run into their share of developmental and infrastructure delays. NASA and both vendors initially expected to have the COTS demonstration phase completed in 2011, but SpaceX ran into some Dragon software development problems while the state of Virginia didn't build out a launch pad at Wallops Island as fast as expected for Orbital Sciences (News - Alert) Corporation.

Orbital, the other COTS/CRS vendor, expects to conduct a demonstration launch of the Antares rocket in a couple of months, followed by its COTS orbital rendezvous and berthing flight later in the year.

Edited by Braden Becker

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