Credit: NASA TV
Today's launch is the last planned test flight for SpaceX under NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program intended to develop a private-sector replacement for the cargo-delivery services of the retired space shuttles. SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract to fly at least 12 unmanned missions to the space station through 2015.
Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the goal of boosting commercial access to space and, ultimately, aiming for deep-space exploration, including missions to Mars. The success of today's launch was never certain or assured, Musk had repeatedly said.
Today, the mission's uncertainty eased up a bit, he said.
"Falcon flew perfectly!!" Musk wrote in a Twitter post from Falcon 9's mission control room in Hawthorne. "Dragon in orbit, comm locked and solar arrays active!! Feels like a giant weight just came off my back."
Would you take a ride on SpaceX's Dragon space capsule?
Orbital catch up
The spacecraft is due to spend its first day on orbit catching up with the 240-mile high (390 km) space station, where it will rendezvous Thursday (May 24) and perform a fly-by to within 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers) to check its navigation systems. [Quiz: How Well Do You Know SpaceX's Dragon?]
On Friday (May 25), the capsule is slated to perform a series of maneuvers to approach the station, with crewmembers onboard the outpost issuing commands to Dragon. If the spacecraft passes a set of "go-no go" checks at Mission Control in Houston, NASA will approve the vehicle to approach the International Space Station. From inside, astronauts Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers will use the lab's robotic arm to grab Dragon and berth it to the station's Harmony node.
The hatches between the two spacecraft are due to be opened early Saturday (May 26), so the crew can enter Dragon and unpack its deliveries.
Dragon is due to spend about a week attached to the outpost. On May 31, the capsule will be packed with completed science experiments and other equipment, unberthed, and sent back toward Earth. The vehicle is equipped with a heat shield to withstand the fires of re-entry, and is due to splash down and be recovered by ship in the Pacific Ocean.
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