For the first time, a private company this week will launch a rocket to the International Space Station, sending it on a grocery run that could be the shape of things to come for the U.S. space program. If this unmanned flight and others like it succeed, commercial spacecraft could be ferrying astronauts to the orbiting outpost within five years.
SpaceX will have only a split second -- at the earliest, at 3:44 a.m. Tuesday, after a planned Saturday launch was delayed -- to shoot its Falcon rocket and Dragon capsule skyward. But getting to the space station is twice as hard, said Space Exploration CEO and chief designer Elon Musk. Once it nears the space station after a two-day flight, the Dragon will spend a day of practice maneuvers before NASA signals it to move in for a linkup.
A Dragon capsule, which is 19 feet tall and 12 feet across, has never before attempted a rendezvous and docking in orbit -- an exquisitely delicate operation, with the risk of a collision that could prove ruinous for the space station, which has six men on board. But if all goes well with the docking, the capsule will bring a half-ton of food and other pantry items.
What sets it apart from other capsules is that it can bring back space station experiments and old equipment, as the shuttles did. None of the Russian, European and Japanese supply ships do that -- they burn up when they return to Earth. And the Russian Soyuz vehicles that ferry astronauts have little room to spare. The Dragon will be cut loose from the space station after about two weeks and aim for a Pacific splashdown off California. Two more SpaceX delivery trips are planned for this year.