SpaceX's Dragon: First Private Spacecraft to Reach Space Station

April 21, 2018 – 04:10 pm
SpaceX Dragon and Space Station MeetA look inside the SpaceX Dragon capsule and its Falcon 9 rocket.
Credit: Karl Tate/

The news became public in March 2006 after SpaceX and several teammates submitted a proposal for NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration program. NASA accepted the SpaceX proposal, and that of another company, in August 2006.

What SpaceX proposed to do was fly the Dragon spacecraft on three Falcon 9 rocket flights — a rocket that was still under development. At the time, SpaceX planned to fly those flights in the 2008-09 timeframe, but the design, approval and milestone process took years longer than anticipated.

Dragon passed a NASA critical design review in October 2007, marking a key milestone, as this is when the shape of the spacecraft is determined. The next month, SpaceX broke ground for a launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. This would be the launching pad for Falcon 9 and Dragon, when the time was right.

Flurry of flight activity

As Dragon development moved forward, NASA offered more funding in several forms. In April 2008, NASA awarded SpaceX a launch services contract.

Dubbed "indefinite delivery/indefinite quality, " the pact allowed for NASA to order anywhere between $20, 000 and $1 billion worth of launches from SpaceX through December 2012. "[SpaceX] can compete for NASA missions using the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 launch vehicles, " the firm stated.

Then came a large breakthrough. In December 2008, NASA selected Space X's Falcon 9/Dragon combination for cargo resupply to the International Space Station. The contract was for a minimum of $1.6 billion, with the option to extend services to up to $3.1 billion. Musk stated it was a "tremendous responsibility" for SpaceX, given the approaching retirement of the shuttle program at the time.

The firm placed some communications hardware on the STS-129 shuttle flight in November 2009 to assist with future SpaceX flights to the station. SpaceX launched the Falcon 9 rocket for the first time in June 2010. This flight included a "qualification unit" of the Dragon spacecraft that was primarily supposed to transmit data during its ride into space.

With the test unit successfully flown, SpaceX turned its attention to sending the real thing. The first full-up test of the Dragon spacecraft came on Dec. 8, 2010. The mission was a success. It marked the first time a private unmanned space capsule was recovered safely back on Earth. [Infographic: How SpaceX's Dragon Space Capsule Works]

The private Dragon capsule built by SpaceX is seen at the end of the International Space Station's robotic arm during its undocking on Oct. 28, 2012, in this camera view. The Dragon capsule made the first commercial cargo delivery to the space station for NASA.
Credit: NASA TV

Achieving berthing

With the world watching, SpaceX prepared to send the first cargo demonstration flight to the station in May 2012. An abort took place after a problem was detected in one of the engines, pushing back the...


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