Marking the first ever commercially contracted space flight, California based company, SpaceX’s Dragon cargo capsule successfully docked, earlier this month, with the International Space Station (ISS) on a resupply mission, potentially heralding a new age in space flight and, following its rendezvous with the ISS, the space capsule has returned to Earth.
Launched on October 7, the Dragon cargo capsule had a payload of some 400 kilograms of food, supplies and equipment, intended for the six astronauts presently making the ISS their home. After three days, the cargo capsule successfully docked with the ISS, which upon unloading was itself loaded with waste materials and medical samples gathered by the ISS astronauts for scientists on earth. Being sent back, the Dragon capsule landed in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of western Mexico, completing the first such commercially contracted cargo run of which SpaceX has been contracted by NASA for 11 more which it will fulfil over the coming years.
As NASA itself wound up its shuttle program, it no longer had the means to conduct resupply missions on its own and so it began to look for commercial partners with which it would be able to contract out such duties as routine cargo runs to and from earth’s low orbit, with an eye to possibly include astronaut transportation or as it was put an astronaut “taxi” service at some later date.
SapceX was able to secure the NASA contract of $1.6 billion following a successful test back in May of its Dragon capsule which on a trial run docked with the ISS without any hitches. The contract itself entailed that SpaceX would be conducting 12 cargo resupply missions to the ISS of which the first was successfully concluded on Sunday and the second will be conducted some time in January of next year.
Speaking about SpaceX, space station Program Manager Mike Suffredini said, "Not only is it going to give us a consistent supply chain up, but very critical, particularly to biological research, is the return mass, to be able to have frozen samples returned home. This really is the keystone to what is going to allow space station to do what it was built to do. It's critical to the success of the station."
NASA is also presently in talks with another firm, the Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC) for a potential $1.9 billion contract that will start operational cargo deliveries to the station. OSC, which is expected to test its Antares rocker and robotic vessel, Cygnus, will be awarded the contract if the tests are successful.