Another First for the Space Program — First Commercial Spacecraft Joins International Space Station

Another First for the Space Program — First Commercial Spacecraft Joins International Space Station

Back during the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union were always trying to outdo each other and be “first” at some space technological feat.   Today they are partners in the International Space Station (ISS) along with Canada, Europe and Japan and the “first” claimed today reflects how far the space program has come since then as SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft became the first commercial spacecraft to visit the ISS.

Dragon was built and launched by a U.S. company, SpaceX.  Although NASA funded part of the development costs for Dragon and its Falcon 9 rocket, SpaceX invested its own funds as well. They are generally considered to be commercial vehicles as opposed to the spacecraft and rockets built by U.S. companies in the past through traditional government contracts. 

Aboard ISS is an international crew of American, European and Russian astronauts and cosmonauts.  The ISS is currently under the command of Russia’s Oleg Kononenko.   NASA’s Don Pettit and Europe’s Andre Kuipers were at the controls as Dragon closed in on the ISS and finally was grappled by Pettit using Canada’s robotic arm, Canadarm2.

In all, it was a fusing of the public and private sectors and the governments of the ISS partners all working together in harmony to achieve a common goal — a space “first” of quite a different nature.

NASA and SpaceX took a cautious step-by-step approach as Dragon closed in on ISS today.  At one point SpaceX commanded Dragon to retreat because its LIDAR system was homing in on the wrong retroreflector on ISS.   SpaceX narrowed the field of view of its LIDAR and proceeded.   Dragon was captured by Canadarm2 at Pettit’s command at 9:56 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT), about 2 hours later than originally planned.  Pettit exclaimed “looks like we got a Dragon by its tail.” 

Photo Credit:  NASA.   Dragon attached to ISS Canadarm2


The berthing of Dragon to the ISS Harmony module was successfully completed at 12:02 pm EDT.  It is the first U.S.-built spacecraft to visit the ISS since the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, last summer.

Dragon is carrying supplies for the ISS crew.   After they are unloaded, Dragon will be filled with items that need to be returned to Earth.  The exact length of time Dragon will remain berthed to ISS is uncertain — earlier reports said 18 days. but NASA’s space station website indicated this morning that it would be one week.   Whenever that occurs, Dragon will detach from the ISS the same way it arrived this morning, fire retrorockets and land in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of the United States and be recovered.  

This mission is a test flight, but assuming all continues to go well, the first commercial resupply flight should not be far behind.  NASA is funding SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. to build space transportation systems to take cargo to the ISS.  Orbital’s Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft have not flown yet.   SpaceX had a head start because Orbital replaced another company (Rocketplane Kistler) that failed early in NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.

With the end of the space shuttle program last year, NASA has no ability to take cargo or crews to the ISS.  Russia, Europe and Japan have spacecraft that can take cargo to the ISS, but none can return anything to Earth.   Russia is the only country that can take crews to and from ISS today.

NASA is currently funding four companies — including SpaceX — to build commercial crew space transportation systems.  SpaceX plans to outfit the Dragon spacecraft with life support systems to enable crew flights, but such launches are still several years away.   SpaceX plans to offer flights into orbit for anyone able to pay.  At the moment SpaceX says it will charge $140 million per flight.  Each flight can take 7 people, making it $20 million per seat.   The other companies receiving commercial crew funding from NASA are Boeing, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin.

The Obama Administration’s decision to turn crew transportation over to the private sector continues to be very controversial.  Congress has not provided as much funding for that aspect of the program as the Obama Administration has requested.   It also wants NASA to choose only one or two companies to support instead of four.   NASA hopes that commercial crew systems will be available by 2017, but that is partially dependent on how much money Congress provides.  Whether today’s achievement will instill confidence in SpaceX specifically or the commercial crew effort generally and increase congressional support remains to be seen.  At the moment the House has voted to give NASA only $500 million instead of the $830 million requested for commercial crew for FY2013.  The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $525 million.  Both figures are higher than the $406 million Congress provided for FY2012, but that was less than half of the $850 million NASA requested for that year.

Congressional concerns focus on whether commercial companies will pay as close attention to crew safety as NASA and whether prices will rise substantially if other customers do not materialize and NASA is the only market.  As then-House Science and Technology Committee chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) said when the idea was first broached in 2010, many in Congress worry that these companies will become “too important to fail” as some financial companies were “too big to fail” during the 2008-2009 economic crisis.

For today, however, sighs of relief and smiles of delight are the order of the day as the commercial cargo program, at least, passes one more test.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.