NASA managers announce February 7 launch date for Dragon ISS mission

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In what will be a highly historic mission, NASA managers announced they have approved the combination of the Dragon C2/C3 (D2/D3) Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) missions, pending final reviews. A preliminary launch date of February 7 was also set, which will see SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch with an unmanned Dragon to the ISS.

Combined Flight Approval:

Although the language allows for this mission to slip further, should ISS partners require more review time, NASA’s announcement is a major milestone not only for SpaceX’s cargo resupply missions, but also for the new era of commercial vehicles entering the operational realm of Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

“Pending completion of final safety reviews, testing and verification, NASA also has agreed to allow SpaceX to send its Dragon spacecraft to rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS) in a single flight,” opened NASA’s statement on the announcement, which will include some final hurdles which all vehicles travelling to the ISS require.

This includes a NASA level Demo Readiness Review (RR) and an ISS review, similar to that undertaken for Europe’s ATV and Japan’s HTV.

As noted in this site’s article earlier this week, the confirmation of an approved combination flight was made by Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate Associate Administrator Bill Gersteinmaier, while it was also confirmed the mission would slip from it previous January timeframe.

“SpaceX has made incredible progress over the last several months preparing Dragon for its mission to the space station,” Mr Gerstenmaier noted. “We look forward to a successful mission, which will open up a new era in commercial cargo delivery for this international orbiting laboratory.

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“There is still a significant amount of critical work to be completed before launch, but the teams have a sound plan to complete it and are prepared for unexpected challenges. As with all launches, we will adjust the launch date as needed to gain sufficient understanding of test and analysis results to ensure safety and mission success.”

The significance of the announcement coming from Mr Gerstenmaier should not be under-estimated, given his close relationship with the ISS’ other major partner, the Russians. Officials at RSC Energia and Roscosmos have been exhibiting a large degree of caution – as should be expected – over the arrival of a brand new vehicle at the orbital outpost.

As previously noted, the Russian officials had a number of concerns – some of which may require alleviating at the upcoming FRRs, which – at an ISS partner level – they will be involved with. Their latest “request” revolved around the flight profile of Dragon, one which they requested should match that undertaken by Japan’s HTV during its first flight.

Dragon’s flight profile has not been revealed in any great detail, but it is believed the vehicle was already closely following the approach milestones carried out by the JAXA vehicle, allowing for several safety decision points enroute to the rendezvous with the Space Station.

A large degree of mitigation is in-built into Dragon’s next trip into space, given it will only arrive at the ISS if all of the requirements under the initial C2 demo objectives receive the joint approval from SpaceX controllers and NASA controllers – the latter located at the Mission Control Center (MCC) in Houston. Any major problems during the C2 flight phase will end the mission.

As noted by NASA, Dragon will conduct a series of check-out procedures that will test and prove its systems in advance of the rendezvous with the station. The primary objectives for the flight include a fly-by of the space station at a distance of approximately two miles to validate the operation of sensors and flight systems necessary for a safe rendezvous and approach. The spacecraft also will demonstrate the capability to abort the rendezvous, if required.

Dragon will perform the final approach to the ISS while the station crew grapples the vehicle with the station’s robotic arm. The capsule will be berthed – by the Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS) to the Earth-facing side of the Harmony node.

At the end of the mission, the crew will reverse the process, detaching Dragon from the station for its return to Earth and splashdown in the Pacific off the coast of California. If the rendezvous and attachment to the station are not successful, SpaceX will complete a third demonstration flight in order to achieve these objectives as originally planned.

With budgetary concerns placing additional pressure on the long-term commercial approach for cargo flights and the eventual crew missions to the ISS, a successful mission will go some way to ease the ISS’ logistics status, which is under strain since the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet from their NASA missions.

Such a historic docking of a commercial – non-Agency – vehicle to the ISS will mark the start of such a drive, one which enables NASA to concentrate on Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) exploration via their Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew vehicle.

“SpaceX is excited to be the first commercial company in history to berth with the International Space Station. This mission will mark a historic milestone in the future of spaceflight,” said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell. “We appreciate NASA’s continued support and their partnership in this process.”

Later in 2012, the second COTS vehicle – Orbital’s Cygnus spacecraft – will join in on ISS resupply operations. No firm launch date has been set for Cygnus’ debut trip to the ISS, following its ride into space via a Taurus II launch vehicle from the new launch facility at the Wallops Space Center.

(Images: L2 Content, NASA, SpaceX)

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