SpaceX Dragon on its way to the ISS!

By Phil Plait | May 22, 2012 11:19 am

At 07:44 UTC, May 22, 2012, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket thundered into space, carrying the Dragon capsule into orbit.

So first, holy wow, and yay! That’s fantastic news! This was the second attempt, after a glitchy valve caused a launch abort a few days ago.

This morning’s launch went very smoothly. After achieving orbit, the uncrewed Dragon craft decoupled from the rocket and successfully deployed its solar panels, a key milestone in the mission. When that happened, the cheering from the SpaceX team could be heard in the webcast background, which was delightful. A lot of people on Twitter commented on how NASA’s narration of the event was very stoic and calm, but the SpaceX webcast was very emotional and involved*. I think both of those are as they should be!

Here’s a short video of the launch:

The entire SpaceX webcast is also online. The key moments are the launch at 44:30 into the video, main engine cutoff and start of the second stage at 47:30, the rocket achieving orbit and Dragon capsule separation at 54:00, and then the solar arrays deploying at 56:20.

Seriously, watch that video at the 56:20 mark. When the arrays deploy, you can hear a huge cheer from the SpaceX employees watching. That was awesome. The SpaceX announcer at deployment made me smile. You can really hear the wonder and excitement in her voice.

So why was this launch important? SpaceX is the first entirely private company to attempt to dock a capsule with the International Space Station. If this mission is a success, it’s a big step toward private companies being able to do resupply missions to ISS, including bringing astronauts to and from orbit (which SpaceX plans to be able to do by 2015). And perhaps most importantly, in the long run it means lowering the cost of putting materials in orbit, and that is absolutely critical in creating a permanent human presence in space.

This launch today is just the start of the mission. On Friday, May 25, the Dragon will undergo a series of maneuvers near and around ISS to show that it can be controlled well enough to dock. If that shakes out, then it will approach the station and an astronaut on board ISS will grab it with the robotic arm, bringing it in to mate. There are supplies on the capsule, including a dozen or so student science experiments to be performed. Finally, after over a week in space, it will undock and return to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific ocean off the coast of California.

We’ve all been waiting a long, long time for this, so my honest and hearty congratulations to the crew at SpaceX and at NASA!

We live in the future, folks.

Image credit: SpaceX


* I also couldn’t help but notice they use the metric system! Hey NASA, ahem.


Related Posts:

SpaceX launch aborted; next attempt Tuesday
Space X set to launch on Saturday May 19
Will ATK beat everyone into space?
Breaking: Private company does indeed plan to mine asteroids… and I think they can do it

MORE ABOUT: Dragon capsule, ISS, SpaceX

Comments (47)

  1. Keith Bowden

    “Holy wow”? I’m disappointed.

    HOLY HALEAKALA!

    Seriously, this is thrilling! Go SpaceX!

  2. Also launched were the ashes of “Scotty” from star trek (along with a bunch of other people) which is kinda cool.

  3. Carlos Marquez

    Go SpaceX!! Mr. Musk (Tesla, SolarCity, SpaceX, PayPal…WOW) is a true entrepreneur, leader and vissionaire!

    I for one will be watching all the manouvers the Dragon spacecraft needs to complete!

    On a lighter note, have you guys seen this site?: http://www.buildtheenterprise.org

  4. Carlos Marquez

    Go SpaceX!! Mr. Musk (Tesla, SolarCity, SpaceX, PayPal…WOW) is a true entrepreneur, leader and vissionaire!

    I for one will be watching all the manouvers the Dragon spacecraft needs to complete!

    On a lighter note, have you guys seen this site?: http://www.buildtheenterprise.org

  5. Doug Bostrom

    A pleasing evolution in our relationship w/space travel.

    I noticed that Dragon’s launch window for this mission was only one second long. Does anybody know why the window is so short?

    Presumably if this was due to the spacecraft being marginally powered for rendezvous w/ISS SpaceX wouldn’t agree to hauling mortal remains (though that’s a wonderful idea) into orbit.

    One second seems awfully short, leaves no room for holds. Puzzling!

  6. Red

    So cool.

    Do we think the NASA channel will have a live shot of the capsule docking with the ISS?

  7. Terry McAllister
  8. Sam

    Jessica Jenson is fairly jumping out of her shoes at the end. I think she could have achieved orbit herself if it wasn’t for admirable self restraint. The sheer exuberance displayed shows that these people really love the work they are doing.

    And why not? They are making history and dragging us all to the stars with them.

    Keep on keeping on, SpaceX.

  9. carbonUnit

    Yay! Back in space!

    This Scotty’s ashes thing strikes me as weird, given they’ve now flown his ashes 3 times?

    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Doohan :
    Almost two years after his death, approximately one-quarter ounce (7 grams) of Doohan’s ashes were sent into space,[15] as he had requested in his will. The ashes, along with those of Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper as well as almost two hundred others, were launched on the SpaceLoft XL rocket, on April 28, 2007, when the rocket briefly entered outer space in a four-minute suborbital flight before parachuting to earth, as planned, with the ashes still inside.[16] The ashes were subsequently launched on a Falcon 1 rocket, on August 3, 2008, into what was intended to be a low Earth orbit, however the rocket failed two minutes after launch.[17] The rest of his ashes were scattered over Puget Sound in Washington.[18][19] On May 22, 2012, a small urn containing some of Doohan’s remains in ash form was flown into space aboard the Dragon spacecraft as part of COTS Demo Flight 2.[20]

    Seems almost disrespectful to keep launching bits of him… They should let him rest in peace. (He’s dead, Jim!)

  10. Blargh

    “This video contains content from NextRadioTV – BFM, who has blocked it from display on this website.”

    o_O
    That’s just bizarre.

    But go SpaceX!

  11. @carbonUnit

    >> “Seems almost disrespectful to keep launching bits of him… They should let him rest in peace.”

    Well he’s resting in pieces.. close enough! ;)

  12. Pasander

    Aaahh, it was nice to hear them using SI units in the webcast! NASA, WTF?!?!

  13. carbonUnit

    Blargh: You can click through to a Youtube video of just the launch, but it’s better to click on the “The entire SpaceX webcast is also online” link under the embedded video and then move out to the launch at 44 minutes in.

    “Higher, and higher, we’ve learned to play with fire, go higher and higher and higher….”

  14. Naomi

    I was in class during the launch (thanks, Australia!), but I was definitely checking their progress on Twitter on my phone! Great job, SpaceX!

  15. VinceRN

    Welcome to the 21st century. Finally.

  16. MadScientist

    Excellent work. I was 4 minutes late for the launch (via NASA TV) because I forgot it was on. :( I loved the streaming images of Stage2 burning – you could see the main funnel glowing bright with the silhouette of a correction rocket (which would swing around now and then – probably firing as well although you can’t see it against the background of the main motors).

    I find the description of the docking procedure a bit strange though – we’ll have to see how that goes.

  17. AliCali

    @ 5 Doug Bostrom

    “I noticed that Dragon’s launch window for this mission was only one second long. Does anybody know why the window is so short?”

    Dr. Plait covered that here: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2012/05/14/space-x-set-to-launch-on-saturday-may-19/

  18. Paul

    #17: the second stage only has one engine. Roll control is provided by that engine’s turbine exhaust, which has a small nozzle that can swivvle from side to side. This turbine’s main purpose is to pressurize fuel for injection into the main thrust chamber, but it burns a small quanity of propellant to drive itself. Reusing its exhaust gas for roll stabilization is a nice simplification of the engine.

  19. ND

    Is the Dragon capable of docking with the station without the use of the station’s robotic arm? The soyuz and others can dock using their own thrusters. If the Dragon is to carry people and even be a lifeboat in case of emergency, the use of the arm seems like a dependency, or one extra thing to malfunction. Anyone know more about it?

  20. #5: The short launch window is all about propellant. The rendezvous and docking parts of this mission are quite length and complicated, involving a lot of flying around the station and moving backwards and forwards, so it requires quite a lot of propellant.

    Their launch window was so small as it was optimised to require the least amount of propellant for the Dragon to catch up with the ISS, leaving enough to complete all of the other mission objectives.

    (That’s me paraphrasing Gwynne Shotwell from pre-launch breifing on Saturday.)

  21. Marshall

    Doug – the 1 second launch window is because you have to launch exactly as the Earth rotates you past the ISS’s orbital plane. Plane changes in orbit are unfeasibly expensive in delta V, so you want to launch when the planet has got you lined up with where you want to go. This was standard procedure for Shuttle launches to ISS, too.

    And you’re right, this doesn’t leave any room for unexpected delays. If you miss that optimal window, you’re looking at trying again tomorrow.

  22. Grand Lunar

    Great to see this!

    And it’ll be even better when we send people up on the thing as well!

    Go SpaceX! Go Dragon!

  23. On this Second attempt, Captured!!! but i had SD camera card failur mid recording, What a pain! took 12 hours of picking an stiching video from a damaged card…Anyway Enjoy!

    http://youtu.be/zOpS2bHkLJM

    The Dragon is faster then the shuttle, it out ran my telescope setting of 6, had to go to 7

  24. OneofNone

    @5. Doug Bostrom:

    AFAIK the launch window was short this time, because the flight plan involves lots of test maneuvering of the dragon capsule. The propellant for that is limited, so you better put the dragon at matching speeds already with the stages 1 and 2. For later flights you have more of the dragon fuel to match position and velocities with the ISS. So then you may launch with more deviation from best launch time.

  25. Doug Bostrom

    Thank you, OneofNone. A while after posting my question I thought to look at the Dragon press kit and it then struck me that the testing program is going to dissipate a lot of energy. Your answer makes perfect sense.

    Beyond the simple (hah!) achievement of getting into orbit the testing phases are extraordinarily ambitious; this mission is the 21st century equivalent of Apollo’s “all up” approach.

    Lots of interesting stuff in the press kit for the curious:

    http://www.spacex.com/downloads/COTS-2-Press-Kit-5-14-12.pdf

  26. AliCali

    @ 5 Doug Bostrom

    “I noticed that Dragon’s launch window for this mission was only one second long. Does anybody know why the window is so short?”

    I have a comment a little above awaiting moderation. It’s linking to another of Dr. Plait’s entries. Here’s the meat, complete with a comma outside the quotes; a grammar standard that he doesn’t agree with.

    “They have what’s called an ‘instantaneous launch window’, which means if they don’t launch right on time they can’t just wait a few minutes and try again; they’ll have to go to their backup date. The reason for this is the vagaries of orbital dynamics. The space station is circling the Earth, the planet is rotating underneath it, and the rocket itself has a certain amount of thrust to get Dragon into orbit so it can catch up to ISS. All this adds up to a single Go/No Go decision at the appointed time.”

  27. Thameron

    Wooo! Low Earth Orbit where they have been sending rockets successfully since before I was born (almost a half-century ago).

  28. Tara Li

    Here’s my thought – the Dragon capsule, once it’s man-rated, seats 7. One of the critical elements limiting the ISS to a crew of 6 has been that only two Soyuz, each rated for 3 people, can be docked. Now, if we have two Dragons docked, instead…

    Seriously – this could make keeping the ISS around for a few more years a *LOT* more worth-while! Then again, Bigelow is going to be throwing up much cheaper station elements soon enough, and maybe they’ll be able to be rotated for gravity simulation.

  29. Paul

    Wooo! Low Earth Orbit where they have been sending rockets successfully since before I was born (almost a half-century ago).

    But now the US is able to do it more cheaply than ever before, adjusted for inflation (and when the Falcon Heavy gets built, more cheaply still). Don’t knock cost reduction; it’s just as important as technical success.

  30. Das Boese

    29. Tara Li Says:

    Seriously – this could make keeping the ISS around for a few more years a *LOT* more worth-while! Then again, Bigelow is going to be throwing up much cheaper station elements soon enough, and maybe they’ll be able to be rotated for gravity simulation.

    While I have no doubt that Bigelow’s station(s) will enable a lot of interesting projects for relatively little money, you can’t really compare it with the ISS in terms of capability. ISS is a full-blown lab complex and something of an experiment itself while Bigelow’s modules will be more like rented workshops. Both are great to have but they fullfill different roles.

  31. Messier Tidy Upper

    Just want to add my congratulations here to SpaceX for the so far successful launch and flight. A long way to go and a lot to prove still – but very impressive early step in the right direction. Well done SpaceX & best wishes for the future. :-)

  32. faisal
  33. Woody Tanaka

    “SpaceX is the first entirely private company”

    Seeing as how half the funding came from NASA, but we, the taxpayers, get none of the profits, rather than “entirely private company,” I think that describing it as another one of those “socialize the risk, privitize the profits” deals is more accurate.

    But congratulations to the workers who worked on this project.

  34. Woody Tanaka

    “This video contains content from NextRadioTV – BFM, who has blocked it from display on this website.”

    “o_O
    “That’s just bizarre.

    Welcome to “free” market space travel.

    Wait until, at some point in the future, when you want to see the footage of humanity’s first footsteps on Mars:

    “This video contains footage owned by SpaceX and is blocked by this website. If you wish to view footage of this historic event, please pay for the SpaceX Video Platinum subscription service for only $599…”

    I’ve seen the future, and it’s costly. (Have to maximize shareholder value, you know…)

  35. Doug Bostrom

    “…but we, the taxpayers, get none of the profits…”

    Well, we do get some back, depending on how creative is the tax accountancy of SpaceX and assuming they ever become profitable.

    Privatized public works might be described as the internal combustion engine of civic life; there’s built-in inefficiency that can’t be completely dialed out. We call it “waste” if money doesn’t end up going to goods and services in the public sector, “profit” if it’s private.

  36. Ferris Valyn

    Actually Woody, that a largely inaccaruate claim. And here is why

    NASA has always had to rely on private companies to build whatever it needs. However, most of those contracts were cost-plus contracts (which meant the government would pay the cost of development plus a fee), and then would also pay for the operations of the vehicle (that may also be done on a cost-plus basis). And many of these were done using sole-source (IE uncompeted) contracts.

    Yes, we paid some money for development, but it was a fixed price contract that was substantially cheaper than was the development contract for the Ares I vehicle (total government investment into Falcon 9 was around $500 million, and total government investment in Ares I was I believe above $10 Billion)

    Thats would seem to me to be a good deal.

    BTW, also of note – Dragon has completed its fly around of ISS – I believe this means its completed all of the COTS 2 flight milestones.

    COTS 3 milestones are next – and that means berthing is next.

  37. Woody Tanaka

    Ferris,

    My point is simply this: nothing that this company does couldn’t be done by NASA or a wholly-government owned company. It may require changes in management, etc., but the point is that it is possible. If it were done, the public would reap the benefits of that $500 million and not some private company.

  38. Ferris Valyn

    1. You are assuming that $500 Million was profit for them. In point fact I know SpaceX invested substantial money into their rocket as well. I believe it was roughly equal value.

    2. NASA has never operated the way you are describing. NASA has ALWAYS used private contractors to build their items, and they’ve always played a role in the operations of the vehicle. One of the stages of the Saturn V was built by Chrysler, and some of the space suit pieces were built by Playtex.

    3. Its not just an issue of changes in management – its also that they can be cheaper than a government rocket, because they can fly more missions for more people.

  39. John EB Good

    Though not as spectacular or glorious as a Moon Landing, I’m confident that this first private docking to the ISS will be remembered by history, when compared to flight, to what was the first regular air service to the flights ot the Wright Brothers. While only Air History Geeks can tell who started this first regular airline, personally, I can’t, though I know well the surnames Neil, Buzz, Orvile and Wilbur.

    The discovery of Americas was fisrt financed by Kings, and quite directly by their taxpayers, but it only was when America turned into a business that this place got really populated. If space is to be populated, at least on a regular basis if not permanently, the human race needs to have a business model in order for this occupation to be viable. And only when the British turned its colonies’ forests into a Navy building machine to defeat the Spaniards’ Armada that the «colonies» started to get rich, instead of getting pillaged by said colonialists. Some even got independant, and actually, are a leading nation in space even today; you know that well. SpaceX proves this still is the case today. The gambit works, and faster than NASA could ever do. Cuz no matter what, NASA can’t get richer than congress sayz.

    Privatisation may even be the only road to get rid of nationalistic ambitions over LEO and space ressources. If you want it, finance it and go get it… (safely) then get paid, no matter where you come from. Sometimes, capitalism has its virtues, however hidden they may be.

    I’d go into the space garbage business personally if I could get my hands on a second hand and maybe cancelled X-37B. Deorbiting safely out of control satellites is a biz with great potential, mon général! (Who knows if the first real regular spaceline won’t be a garbage run on busy and deeply needed commercial orbits?) Could this warbird have such nice civilan applications? You know how GPS was and turned out to be, in the end, hey?

    Smaller friendly nations like Canada are now more than ever capable of having an independant Space Science program for their «shuttle trained» astronauts to call their space agency a real space agency with real astronaut jobs… if we would invest also in SpaceX. I’d put my taxmoney with joy into that instead of into those F-35As. And rather buy their shares instead and long before Facebook’s ones!

    SpaceX, once development is achieved and the US taxpayer gets back on his investment, should rent flights to other space agencies, and potentialy even sell a Dragon ship to «partner» nations to launch atop their Falcon rockets. (You get your own custom seating model with specific payload racks, if need be, and we launch it.) That would be in my long term business plan, if I was on their board. And as Europe delays ever and ever a crewed model of their own ATV, and considering the actual economic situation over there, it may even be sounder for ESA to also deal with SpaceX for such orbital transport service for their own crews and missions, than develop ($$$) their own manned system, once the beast is proven a nice, good and tamed Dragon. They really need to put their money elsewhere, over there, presently.

    As we properly say: Now, we’re in business! And this Co can get stinking rich is you let them loose on the market.

    Yes, a great change awaits us at the winter solstice of 2012. The real turn of the XXIst century, and the coming of space age into maturity, I’d say.

    «Historians agree that this was the century Humans really began to live and work away from the planet they evolved on.» -Encyclopedia Galactica, 116th edition, 1020 Foundation Era.

  40. Woody Tanaka

    @Ferris,

    1) No, I’m not. I’m saying that, okay, we put in half the money and the private company put in half the money. So if it goes belly up, we both lose. But if it is massively profitable, do we both gain? No. We lose and they gain. THAT is the problem.

    2) I’m not talking about contractors providing pieces. It’s about control, accountability, and not pushing costs and risks onto the public while pocketing the profits.

    3) There is nothing which prevents the government from doing exactly what this company is doing for exactly the same people, with the taxpayers benefiting instead of the profits being stuffed in private pockets while the costs and risk is borne by the public.

  41. Woody Tanaka

    @ John EB Good

    “The discovery of Americas was fisrt financed by Kings, and quite directly by their taxpayers, but it only was when America turned into a business that this place got really populated.”

    It was already populated. They got genocided by the people you’re praising.

    “Now, we’re in business! And this Co can get stinking rich is you let them loose on the market.”

    Also helps to have half of your costs fronted by the taxpayers but get to pocket the profits.

  42. Phil,
    While this is not true of all NASA programs, of course, ISS definitely works in the metric system. Space Shuttle may not have, which was a hold over from pre-international space endeavours and the old aerospace industry. Old habits die hard. Anyway, ISS program works all in metric, at least in operations. Some parts of engineering (contractors like Boeing) do their work in Standard for ISS. Check out our displays, especially on ISS Live, and you’ll see metric.

    – Ben H.
    Houston, TX

    http://spacestationlive.jsc.nasa.gov/

  43. MaDeR

    Nice BSing, Tanaka. NASA always paid private companies for their work…

    “There is nothing which prevents the government from doing exactly what this company is doing for exactly the same people, with the taxpayers benefiting instead of the profits being stuffed in private pockets while the costs and risk is borne by the public.”
    …so this sentence is just plain lie.

  44. Daniel

    I heard that the Dragon was also carrying a wooden cross (christian). Can anyone comment on that?

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »