Another incredible chapter in the amazing story of 21st century supply chain innovation is being written, some 200 miles over our heads.
On Sunday, October 7, 2012, an unmanned commercial cargo ship blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, embarking on a supply mission to the International Space Station, which was at the time soaring somewhere southeast of Tasmania, in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
Manufacturer of both the capsule, named Dragon, and the Falcon rocket that carried the capsule into orbit, is California-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp., otherwise known as SpaceX.
NASA has a $1.6 billion contract with SpaceX for 12 resupply missions. Not only will the Dragon be capable of carrying valuable payloads into space for use and consumption by the International Space Station operatives, but it also has a unique responsibility: to bring materials back to Earth.
Extreme reverse-logistics, in a manner of speaking.
Marcia Dunn of Associated Press delves into the details about the materials being returned, and explains that this mission is just the beginning for SpaceX:
Especially exciting for NASA is the fact that the Dragon will return twice as much cargo as it took up, including a stockpile of astronauts’ blood and urine samples. The samples — nearly 500 of them — have been stashed in freezers since Atlantis made the last shuttle flight in July 2011.
The Dragon will spend close to three weeks at the space station before being released and parachuting into the Pacific at the end of October. By then, the space station should be back up to a full crew of six.
None of the Russian, European or Japanese cargo ships can bring anything back; they’re destroyed during re-entry. The Russian Soyuz crew capsules have limited room for anything besides people.
Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX — owned by PayPal co-founder Musk — is working to convert its unmanned Dragon capsules into vessels that could carry astronauts to the space station in three years. Other U.S. companies also are vying to carry crews. Americans must ride Russian rockets to orbit in the meantime, for a steep price.
Here is a brief video produced by SpaceX that allows us to get a feel for the initiative, which shows how private sector creativity, in terms of design, manufacture, and function, can effectively serve the broad public interest:
CBS News offers this report about the current mission, written by William Harwood:
An unmanned cargo ship loaded with spare parts, science equipment and crew supplies — including ice cream treats — rocketed into orbit Sunday and set off after the International Space Station, kicking off a new era of commercial resupply flights intended to restore a U.S. supply chain that was crippled by the shuttle’s retirement.
The Dragon capsule and its Falcon 9 rocket, both built by Space Exploration Technologies, roared to life with a rush of fiery exhaust at 8:35:07 p.m. EDT, quickly climbing away from launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Making its first operational flight under a $1.6 billion NASA contract, the 157-foot-tall Falcon 9 arced away on a northeasterly trajectory paralleling the East Coast of the United States, putting on a spectacular evening sky show for area residents and tourists.
Liftoff was timed to roughly coincide with the moment Earth’s rotation carried the pad into the plane of the space station’s orbit, the only way for the spacecraft to catch up with its 5-mile-per-second target.
Generating more than 855,000 pounds of thrust, the Falcon 9 went supersonic one minute and 10 seconds after launch as its nine first stage Merlin engines boosted the spacecraft out of the dense lower atmosphere.
Just over three minutes after liftoff, the first stage fell away and a single second stage engine continued the push to orbit. Live television views from a camera mounted at the base of the second stage showed the engine nozzle glowing cherry red against the black of space as the rocket climbed toward orbit.
The second stage appeared to operate normally and the Dragon capsule was released about 10 minutes and 24 seconds after liftoff. A few moments later, cameras showed the capsule’s two solar arrays unfolding and locking in place.
Launched into an initially elliptical orbit with a high point of 204 miles and a low point of around 126 miles, the spacecraft will carry out a complex computer-orchestrated series of rendezvous rocket firings to catch up with the space station early Wednesday.
Unlike Russian, European and Japanese cargo craft that routinely visit the station, the SpaceX Dragon capsule was designed to make round trips to and from the lab complex, giving it the ability to bring major components and experiment samples back to Earth for the first time since shuttles stopped flying last year.
“Not only is it going to give us a consistent supply chain up, but very critical, particularly to biological research, is the return mass, to be able to have frozen samples returned home,” said space station Program Manager Mike Suffredini. “This really is the keystone to what is going to allow space station to do what it was built to do. It’s critical to the success of the station.”
If all goes well, station commander Sunita Williams and Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide will use the lab’s robot arm to grapple the Dragon capsule around 7:22 a.m. Wednesday, maneuvering it to a berthing at the Earth-facing port of the forward Harmony module.
Over the next three weeks or so, the station crew will unload a half ton of equipment and supplies, including experiment hardware, a freezer, spare parts, clothing and food. Taking advantage of the freezer, ice cream was included, a rare treat for space crews. (Read more…)
Once again, logistics plays a lead role in one of humanity’s magnificent achievements.
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