A mechanical glitch in one of the engines might have delayed the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon rocket last Friday, but today the California-based company made history. After a successful launch from its Florida pad at 03:44 EDT, it has become the first private firm to make a cargo delivery in space.
The Falcon rocket that launched early Tuesday was topped by an unmanned Dragon freight capsule, and will re-supply the International Space Station (ISS) later this week.
After launch, the rocket climbed rapidly to an altitude of 340km above the Earth in just under 10 minutes. Shortly thereafter, the Dragon capsule was ejected from the rocket, and successfully opened its solar panels. The Dragon vessel is expected to reach the ISS on Thursday, when it will come within 2.5km of the orbiting outpost.
On Friday, the capsule will be steered to within 10 meters of the station, at which point ISS astronauts will grab the ship with a robotic arm and berth it to the station. Once the capsule is securely in place, it will be emptied of its load – 500kg of food, water and equipment. It will then be set back for a return to Earth at the end of May.
SpaceX has been backed in its endeavors by NASA, which is hoping to contract out routine unmanned and human spaceflight operations in low-Earth orbit to private companies. If commercial companies can take responsibility for such tasks, this would free NASA up to undertake more long-range missions, such as trips to Mars and various asteroids.
NASA has set SpaceX a list of development milestones, and when these are complete a $1.6bn ISS re-supply contract kicks in.