The Voyage of the Dragon
Launching a new era in space travel, the Dragon is the first private spacecraft to fly to the International Space Station
Dragon delivered 1,000 pounds of supplies to the International Space Station. (John Raoux / AP Images)
The Dragon has landed! After a brief but history-making trip to the International Space Station (ISS), the brand-new Dragon capsule has splashed down in the Pacific Ocean and been recovered by technicians. The trip marks the first time that a private spacecraft—one not owned by a government or the U.S. space agency, NASA—has docked at the ISS.
Dragon is 19 feet long and shaped like a gumdrop. The capsule was designed and built by SpaceX (short for Space Exploration Technologies), a company that develops new vehicles for space travel. Dragon was unmanned, meaning there were no people on board.
SpaceX used its own Falcon rockets to launch Dragon last Friday from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The spacecraft then flew to the ISS and delivered 1,000 pounds of supplies—such as food, clothes, and batteries—to astronauts working on board.
Today the space capsule re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and splashed down at 11:42 a.m. Eastern time. It returned from the ISS with 1,400 pounds of equipment. SpaceX has 48 hours to return some of that equipment to NASA. If it succeeds in meeting that deadline, NASA scientists plan to use Dragon to transport time-sensitive science specimens from the ISS to labs on Earth.
THE NEXT GENERATION OF SPACE TRAVEL
NASA ended its space shuttle program last year because of budget cuts and the age of the shuttles. Since then, U.S. astronauts have had to hitch rides on Russian spacecraft. These ships do not have enough room for cargo, or goods being transported from one place to another.
Now, with the success of Dragon, NASA can use SpaceX to transport cargo to the ISS. Although the government agency will pay SpaceX a lot of money to do this, the cost to NASA will still be less than if it were to build and fly new shuttles.
Eventually, NASA wants to use commercial space vehicles to transport astronauts as well as cargo.
Other companies plan to compete with SpaceX for NASA contracts. Orbital Sciences Corporation hopes to launch its own commercial freighter, or cargo ship, this year. And Virgin Galactic has just received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to begin test flights of its six-passenger spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo.