Thursday, December 2, 2010

Don't Look Now...

I've had really bad luck predicting SpaceX's activities thus far, and it seems every time I predict something with the COTS-1 launch I immediately hear about a delay. Therefore, I am not going to advise anyone interested in spaceflight to check out the live webcast of the static fire from 8:00 AM to 9:00 AM of the Falcon 9 vehicle tomorrow (Dec. 3) in preparation for the flight Tuesday if all does well. If me talking about it doesn't jinx things and this test goes well, the flight Tuesday should be very interesting. This mission will be the first flight of the Dragon spacecraft, which is being designed for cargo and possibly manned orbital missions.

Simulated image of Dragon spacecraft in Earth O

Dragon is pretty near-and-dear to my heart. It's being developed at the moment under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Service contract from NASA, with the idea to farm out at least some cargo delivery to ISS to private companies after the retirement of the Space Shuttle. It consists of two portions, a pressurized capsule equipped with a CBM hatch to berth with the station, and an unpressurized cylindrical trunk which can contain vacuum-capable cargo. This combination of pressurized and unpressurized cargo capability makes it similar to the Japanese HTV, the European ATV, and the Orbital Space Science Cygnus, which is a fellow COTS vehicle. However, unlike any of these, Dragon's pressurized section is a heat-shield-equipped capsule, like the Apollo capsule, and capable of ballistic entry and recovery. Indeed, Dragon is designed so that in the future, it could be fitted with seats and a launch abort motor for crewed missions to the ISS or a commercial station like the Bigelow designs, which would look something like this video.

On this COTS-1 mission, the objectives are for Dragon to separate from the Falcon 9 second stage, test its orbital maneuvering engines and other systems, then re-enter the atmosphere after 2-4 orbit and a mission lasting a few hours. On the next flight (COTS-2, scheduled for early 2011), a Dragon will rendezvous with the ISS. On the third flight (COTS-3), the Dragon will actually dock with ISS. Following flights will begin regular cargo delivery operations, which SpaceX has been scheduled. There's some speculation that if this first flight goes very well, they may actually be allowed to plan to proceed to the COTS-3 docking objectives on the COTS-2 flight if all COTS-2 mission objectives are successfully achieved, but word on that is not expected until after the COTS-1 flight.

Anyway, assuming I haven't jinxed it by talking about it here, the static fire tomorrow and the mission Thursday should be very interesting. My closing link for today is a repeat link to the crewed Dragon video from earlier. Seriously, watch it. It'd be the first new manned vehicle developed in several decades if it beat Orion, unless you count the revisions of the Soyuz. Watching it gives me shivers, and it's something I'd love to work on professionally.

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