I realize I’m a couple of weeks late in posting this, but better late than never. Congratulations to SpaceX on the flawless flight of their Dragon capsule – from the Falcon 9 launch, to berthing with the ISS, to the picture perfect splashdown and recovery. The successful mission clears the way for the Dragon to begin commercial resupply operations to the ISS, with the first two flights planned to take place before the end of the year. The significance of this achievement really can’t be overstated. This flight effectively marks the start of commercial operations to low earth orbit.
Of course, there are several videos of the events. The press briefing before the unberthing:
The unberthing itself. Watch closely at the 5:40 mark and you can see the Draco thrusters fire in the first departure burn. It is just a small bright spot in the thruster bell.
The descent and splashdown video is fairly poor, but I still think it is interesting:
And last, but not least, a press briefing to wrap everything up:
While these unmanned cargo flights are certainly a major achievement, the next big step for Dragon is manned flight. SpaceX is working on the systems necessary to enable the Dragon to conduct manned flights, with an eye toward NASA’s Commercial Crew effort. With this successful flight Dragon is certainly the odds on favorite to be selected to carry crew to the ISS. But SpaceX isn’t the only company working on manned orbital vehicles.
Boeing is working on their CST-100, a manned capsule similar in concept to Dragon. The CST-100 is being designed for operations to the ISS, as well as the commercial stations planned by Bigelow Aerospace. They’ve been conducting drop tests of a boilerplate capsule (which means it is just representative of the shape and weight distribution, and is not the actual capsule design) to verify the parachute and airbag landing system:
Also in the hunt is Sierra Nevada Corporation with their Dream Chaser lifting body. The Dream Chaser looks more like a vehicle of the future than the capsule designs, something more appropriate for Buck Rogers or John Crichton. The basic shape is similar to NASA’s HL-20 concept from the 90s, and reaches back to the lifting body research programs of the 60s and 70s such as the HL-10, M2, and X-24. I have to say I’d really love to see the Dream Chaser become operational, if only because it looks like the future. SNC has been conducting captive carry tests of a test article in preparation for drop testing:
The vehicle builders aren’t the only ones working on future systems, NASA is preparing as well. The giant Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), constructed for the Saturn V program and used for the Shuttle, is being thoroughly modernized to be ready for the next generation of rockets. Not only is it being redesigned to handle NASA’s own planned Space Launch System, but commercial rockets and spacecraft as well:
To wrap it all up, a recent episode of This Week At NASA included segments on SpaceX Dragon, Orbital Sciences Corporations Cygnus capsule (a competitor to Dragon for commercial cargo delivery to ISS, but not intended for crew), the Boeing CST-100, SNC Dream Chaser, NASA Space Launch System, and more: