Tuesday, May 22, 2012

First commercial spacecraft lifts-off on space station supply flight

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- A new era in space travel began on Tuesday as the first private spacecraft lifted-off from Florida designed to rendezvous and dock to the International Space Station.

Built and launched by Space Exploration Technologies or SpaceX, a Falcon 9 rocket delivered a spacecraft loaded with nearly fourteen-hundred pounds of food, water, and clothing into earth orbit destined to resupply earth's orbital outpost.

"I think its great commercial enterprise can take us into space," states David Dundee, lead astronomer at Tellus Science Museum near Atlanta. "I was watching the launch with great interest the whole morning."

It is America's first resupply mission to the complex in ten months as the next generation craft grabs a hold of the torch blazed by the space shuttle era.

Lift-off of the Falcon 9 rocket occurred at 3:44:38 a.m. EDT, on Tuesday soaring into the clear dark skies over Cape Canaveral and toward a rising Sun and the dawn of a new era in space technology.

At launch, the space station was orbiting 249 miles high above the north Atlantic waters.
The 157-foot tall white rocket darted out over the Atlantic and up the eastern seaboard as it's nine Merlin engines pushed it higher -- beginning it's chase of the orbiting lab.

Residents from America's Space Coast up to Virginia watched as the Falcon rocket soared high overhead. "We watched it, we saw it as a big, bright star," said Bill Williams, a Savannah resident and amateur astronomer. "It was a lot smaller than a shuttle launch for sure."

Three minutes later, the rocket's now empty first stage separated, and, seconds later, the second stage's lone Merlin engine roared to life to accelerate Dragon into orbit.

Applause and a few high-five's were seen in SpaceX's launch control center in California as the spacecraft arrived in it's planned orbit.

Eleven minutes after launch, Dragon's twin power generating solar arrays deployed, and the craft began a series of thruster firings to nudge it on a course to rendezvous with it's port-of-call.

Dragon's voyage to the space station will take nearly two days, arriving Thursday morning below the orbital complex.

Residents will have an opportunity to view both the space station and Dragon as they sail 250 miles high above on Thursday, NASA's Johnson Space Center informed this aerospace reporter.

A three minute pass will begin at 5:00 a.m. as the space station precedes the cargo craft as they travel close together - one behind the other - over the Peach State.

If you are an early riser, both crafts will appear as separate non-blinking stars moving across the predawn sky from the northwestern horizon toward the northern edge of the sky.

Thrusters on the cargo craft will orient Dragon into a proper alignment to be picked up by a 57-foot long robotic arm on Tuesday and pulled over to be attached to the station's docking port.

By 7:00 a.m., the craft is expected to be in position to be snared by the station's Canadian-built arm by astronaut Don Pettit to begin the docking phase.

Dragon will be be attached to station at the earth facing port on the American Harmony module at 11:05 am on Friday.

Dragon will stay docked to the outpost for nine days before being release back out onto the black ocean of space on May 31.

The craft will reenter the earth's atmosphere a few hours after undocking and then splashdown into the Pacific Ocean about 250 miles off the coastline of southern California.

After a successful flight, the SpaceX Dragon cargo craft will become "the only spacecraft in the world capable of returning significant cargo from the space station" to here on earth, SpaceX confirmed last week.

(Charles Atkeison reports on science and technology for Examiner.com. Follow his updates via Twitter @SpaceFlight360.)

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