Plenty of Nail-Biting Moments Ahead for SpaceX Mission

After last weekend’s delayed launch, the Falcon 9 rocket built by SpaceX blasted off Tuesday, carrying the unmanned Dragon capsule into low-Earth orbit.

While the launch itself could have been considered breathtaking, there will be more “hold your breath” moments ahead. The next one will come on Thursday when the craft is scheduled to dock with the International Space Station.

“This was a beautiful launch and an incredible day,” SpaceX spokesperson Kirstin Brost Grantham told TechNewsWorld. “Now the vehicle must complete a series of difficult tests including systems checks and performing complicated maneuvers to show it is ready to visit the space station. So far things are looking good, but the most difficult aspects of the mission are ahead of us.”

The Dragon capsule’s docking is considered the most challenging task of this mission.

“I don’t think this part can be exaggerated,” said Michael Lopez-Alegria, president of theCommercial Spaceflight Federation. “A lot of things need to go right.”

Although this flight is being watched very closely, it isn’t a first in every respect. The Falcon has three flights under its wings while the Dragon has flown twice, noted Lopez-Alegria. “But this is the first time that Dragon is making this docking, and it is not overstating it to say there is still a very long way to go with this particular mission.”

On Course but Challenging

The docking will require a number of complicated maneuvers, including a “fly under” that will include various navigation and sensor performance tests. SpaceX will collect the data, but NASA will make the final decision.

“There are a number of task/fail criteria,” Lopez-Alegria told TechNewsWorld. “Only after these are accomplished will NASA give the go.”

Of course, every time a craft visits the ISS, the docking can be complicated.

“Docking of two spacecraft is a complicated task, but it is one that the U.S. perfected back in the 1960s with the Gemini program,” said John W. Delano, Ph.D., associate director of the New York Center for Astrobiology. “The only major accident during a docking maneuver occurred on June 25, 1997, when a Soviet Progress resupply vehicle M-34 collided with the Soviet MIR space station causing significant damage to the Spektr module.”

That particular accident was caused by an attempted manual docking strategy that was conducted in order to save money by not having to pay for a Ukrainian-built Kurs automatic docking system, Delano told TechNewsWorld.

“Apart from that bad day, automated docking systems used by the Russians, Europeans and U.S. have performed well for decades,” he added. “Unless the automatic docking system being used by the Dragon module is an untested design, the docking on Friday with the ISS would be expected to go well. In summary, while accidents can always happen anywhere, I fear that some members of the media are hyping this.”

Returning to Earth

It will also be up to the crew of the ISS to help use the station’s robotic arm in the final docking maneuver. Once it’s complete, the hard part will be over — but as with anything in space exploration, there isn’t such a thing as technically easy and, more importantly, nothing can be taken for granted.

“Nothing is easy, but I would say that undocking brings them over the hump,” added Lopez-Alegria. “The vehicle has returned to Earth and been recovered. So there is a little less risk.”

If successful, this could pave for the way for other missions, which could be big moneysavers for NASA.

“If NASA can rid itself of the routine low-Earth orbit tasks, then it can devote more of its money, skills and talents to doing new and exciting things that will contribute to this nation’s legacy,” added Delano.

Media Attention

The launch on Tuesday wasn’t one of those events that makes you stop and remember where you were when the SpaceX rocket blasted into orbit, but it did grab some headlines, and it could be remembered as a major event in the history of space travel.

Earth from Dragon spacecraft

View from the Dragon spacecraft as it orbits the Earth. This picture shows the Earth as seen by a thermal imager that Dragon will use in its approach to the International Space Station. Credit: SpaceX

“This isn’t a space shuttle, so there were no people on board,” Lopez-Alegria emphasized, “and maybe I’m too close to it, but I think the level of coverage it garnered was appropriate.”

Keeping the attention of the public at all is a major step, especially as NASA retired the space shuttle fleet. To many, that signaled the end of America’s serious involvement in space exploration, but in fact it is very much alive — just headed in a different direction.

“I don’t think there is any jeopardy about the future of space exploration at all in the United States,” said Monty Twing of Evergreen Aviation. “The SpaceX guys hired a lot of NASA retirees, and I think the future is in very good hands.”

The hope for now is that missions such as the Dragon flight to ISS could be the beginning of a new era of space exploration.

“This could spur more private interest in space exploration — if there is a profit to be made,” said Delano.

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