Washington: An unmanned
cargo capsule blasted off Sunday night to launch the first
commercial delivery to the International Space Station, marking a
major shift in how the US sends supplies and gear to the orbiting
Perched atop a Falcon 9 rocket, the reusable Dragon capsule, built
by the private spaceflight company SpaceX, lifted off from the
Cape Canaveral air force station in Florida at 8.35 p.m., NASA TV
This is the first of 12 contracted flights by SpaceX to resupply
the space station and marks the second trip by a Dragon to the
station, following a successful demonstration mission in May,
The capsule is packed with 454 kg of cargo, including experiment
hardware, spare parts, clothing, a freezer and food. Taking
advantage of the freezer, ice cream was packed in, a rare treat
for space crews. It is also carrying 23 microgravity experiments
designed by students.
If all goes well, station astronauts will use the lab's robot arm
to grapple Dragon Wednesday morning, maneuvering it to a berthing
at the Earth-facing port of the forward Harmony module.
The reusable capsule is slated to return in late October with 907
kg, including scientific experiments and failed equipment that can
be repaired and sent back.
"It actually marks the beginning of true commercial spaceflight to
take cargo to the International Space Station for us," NASA
administrator Charles Bolden said during a video chat on Google
The SpaceX Dragon is the only space station cargo craft designed
to safely return to Earth, a critical capability that was lost
when NASA's space shuttle fleet was retired in 2011.
The Russian Soyuz spacecraft that ferry crews to and from the
space station can only carry a few hundred pounds of small items
back to Earth. All other station vehicles -- unmanned Russian
Progress supply ships and European and Japanese cargo craft --
burn up during re-entry.
Before Dragon's liftoff, flights to the space station have always
been a government-only affair.
Until their retirement last summer, US space shuttles carried most
of the gear and many of the astronauts to the orbiting outpost.
Since then, American astronauts have had to rely on Russian
capsules for rides. European, Japanese and Russian supply ships
have been delivering cargo.
NASA is looking to the private sector, in this post-shuttle era,
to get American astronauts launching again from US soil. It will
be at least four to five years before SpaceX or any other private
operator is capable of flying astronauts.