By Michael Lipin and Chris Hannas
A capsule built by the first private company to fly to the International Space Station is on its way to the orbiting lab on the first official mission to deliver cargo.
California-based SpaceX launched its Dragon capsule late Sunday from Cape Canaveral on the U.S. Atlantic Coast. The capsule is scheduled to dock with the space station early Wednesday as part of a $1.6 billion contract with the U.S. space agency NASA.
The mission follows a successful test delivery to the ISS in May. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said everyone feels better with each successful launch, but that getting to the space station is still a difficult task and a lot of work remains.
“We will learn from our flights and continue to improve the vehicle. Given that we are looking towards flying crew on these vehicles, we want to make sure that we address any and all items that we find and learn about the vehicle to make it even more reliable,” said Shotwell.
The Dragon is carrying 455 kilograms of supplies to the orbiting lab and is expected to carry almost double that amount of cargo back to Earth. The return cargo will include biological samples that have been collected and stored in the space station’s freezers until they can be analyzed on the ground.
ISS Director Sam Scimemi called the Dragon’s ability to return cargo to Earth “critical” to utilizing the space station. Russia’s Soyuz capsule is the only other spacecraft that returns anything to Earth from the station, and has little room for cargo because it is used for astronaut transport.
Scimemi said the the combination of government and private-sector capabilities gives the United States a strength that other nations do not have, and allows the U.S. to fulfill its leadership responsibilities for the space station program.
“It also provides the basis for SpaceX to do other things other than just going to the Space Station eventually, so we’re looking forward to that as well,” he said. “It’s not just the government itself providing leadership, it is industry itself providing leadership as well, which is more than China or India or other countries are doing today.”
The current mission is the first of 12 SpaceX supply flights to the orbiting lab under the NASA contract. The next one is scheduled for January of next year.
The Dragon capsule is expected to return to Earth October 28.