Astronauts float inside SpaceX Dragon capsule
CAPE CANAVERAL, May 26 – Astronauts aboard the International Space Station opened the hatch and floated inside a Space Exploration Technologies’ Dragon capsule today, the first privately owned spaceship to reach the orbital outpost, NASA said.
Running ahead of schedule, station commander Oleg Kononenko and flight engineer Don Pettit opened the hatch to Dragon just before 6am EDT (1000 GMT), NASA mission commentator Josh Byerly reported from Mission Control in Houston.
The bell-shaped capsule, which was making its second test flight, arrived at the space station yesterday.
The crew wore protective masks and goggles, but the interior of Dragon, which is 350 cubic feet (10 cubic metres), about the size of a large walk-in closet, proved clean.
“There was no sign of any kind of (debris) floating around,” Pettit radioed to Mission Control.
“It kind of reminds me of the cargo capability that I could put in the back of my pickup truck. And the smell inside smells like a brand new car,” Pettit added.
Dragon carries about 544 kg of food and other supplies for the station, all non-essential items because NASA and Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, did not know beforehand if it would actually make it to the station.
Following Tuesday’s launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, Dragon had to demonstrate that it could be commanded and controlled by operators on the ground as well as by the orbiting space station crew.
Dragon and SpaceX mission control in Hawthorne, California, aced two days of precision flying and systems tests, clearing the way for Dragon to fly within reach of the station’s 17.7 metre robot arm yesterday.
Astronauts snared the capsule at 9:56am EDT (1356 GMT) yesterday as the two spacecraft zoomed around the planet at 28,164 kilometres per hour. It was anchored into a berthing port on the station’s Harmony connecting node a few hours later.
“You made history today and it firmly locked us into place and locked the future direction of the American space programme in place,” NASA administrator Charlie Bolden radioed to the crew later yesterday.
NASA’s use of commercial spaceships to fly cargo – and eventually astronauts – to and from the station will “revolutionise the way we carry out space exploration,” Bolden added.
SpaceX and a second company, Orbital Sciences Corp, hold NASA contracts worth a combined US$3.5 billion (RM11.04 billion) to fly cargo to the station.
Orbital plans to debut its Antares rocket and Cygnus capsule later this year.
NASA is reviewing proposals from at least four firms, including SpaceX, seeking funding under a related programme to develop spaceships for flying astronauts as well. Awards are expected in August.
Since the retirement of the space shuttles last year, the United States is dependent on Russia to fly crews to the station, a US$100 billion project of 15 nations. It hopes to break the Russian monopoly, which costs NASA about US$400 million a year, in 2017.
Once unloaded, Dragon will be filled with about 590 kg of equipment and science gear that need a ride back to Earth – the first big return load since the final shuttle flight last July.
Dragon is due to depart the station on Thursday and splash down into the Pacific Ocean about 402 km off the coast of southern California later that day. – Reuters