Sunday was a busy day for the commercial space industry. First, a new spacecraft docked at the international space station. Hours later, a souped-up rocket built by tech titan Elon Musk’s company SpaceX roared off a launchpad in California, a harbinger of grander things to come.
Orbital Sciences, based in Virginia, and SpaceX have NASA contracts to supply cargo to the space station. SpaceX had already reached the station three times, and Orbital matched the feat Sunday when its Cygnus spacecraft parked itself at the orbiting laboratory, ready to offload about 1,500 pounds of food, clothing and scientific experiments designed by students.
SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract for supplying cargo, and it is one of three companies, along with Sierra Nevada and Boeing, hoping to win a contract to taxi astronauts to the station.
The 224-foot Falcon 9 “version 1.1.,” which ignited Sunday on a pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base, is an upgrade of a SpaceX rocket that has already gone into space five times. This version, with more powerful engines, carried to orbit a small satellite that will study “space weather.”
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The company named its rocket “Falcon” after the Millennium Falcon spaceship from the “Star Wars” movies. The two-stage rocket has nine engines on its first stage, hence “Falcon 9.” SpaceX hopes to build a heavy-lift version that will employ three rocket cores strapped together.
SpaceX appears to be on a trajectory to compete for heavy-lift military launches, edging into the territory of United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of aerospace behemoths Boeing and Lockheed Martin. And Musk, who runs SpaceX part time when not supervising the electric-car company Tesla, has the even more audacious goal of colonizing Mars.
In a corporate webcast Sunday, SpaceX employees at the company’s Hawthorne, Calif., factory could be seen wearing “Occupy Mars” T-shirts.
Orbital launched Cygnus on Sept. 18 atop the company’s rocket, Antares, from Wallops Island, Va.
Although that launch went off without a hitch, a software glitch delayed Cygnus’ rendezvous with the station until Sunday.
A discrepancy in navigation data between the capsule and the space station led to a frustrating standoff. A simple software repair was carried out by ground controllers. Then the Cygnus had to wait for a Russian spacecraft to bring three new astronauts.
In the meantime, the company had to demonstrate that the unpiloted Cygnus could make delicate maneuvers in the vicinity of the laboratory, which is currently home to six astronauts.
“We had to go through some tough wickets, and we did with flying colors,” Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski said. “It was a great day for the whole company.”
Applause could be heard in Mission Control once Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano grabbed hold of Cygnus with the space station’s hulking mechanical arm. The union occurred 260 miles above the Indian Ocean. Before long, the capsule was latched securely to the orbiting lab. Its hatch will remain closed until early Monday; that’s when the six station astronauts will enter the capsule and begin unloading.
With the hardest part of this demonstration mission a success, Orbital is now on track to carry out eight cargo missions to the station under a $1.9 billion NASA contract. The company hopes to launch again in December.
NASA officials along with White House representatives declared it a historic day.
“It was just a very, very impressive job … I just couldn’t be happier and more proud,” said the NASA manager overseeing this commercial effort, Alan Lindenmoyer.
Now that the space station has two U.S. private companies capable of delivering goods, he noted, “it’s certainly relief and something we’re ready to celebrate.”
John Holdren, assistant to President Obama for science and technology, said Sunday’s success validates the president’s goal of focusing NASA on deep-space exploration and leaving station cargo and astronaut hauls to private industry.
“Space history was made again today,” Holdren said in a statement.
Unlike the SpaceX Dragon that can return items to Earth, the Cygnus is designed to burn up upon descent. Once unloaded of its 1,300 pounds worth of food, clothes and other items, it will be filled with trash and cut loose Oct. 22. That’s how the Russian, European and Japanese supply ships end up as well: self-destructing garbage cans.