Until just a few years ago, manned spaceflight was the exclusive sandbox of not just nations, but of the world's select superpowers -- the countries with enough disposable income to say, "F**k it. Let's go to the Moon." Those days are over, sadly, slowly smothered by shrinking budgets and realigning priorities.
But this isn't the end of space flight. In fact, it's the start of an exciting new chapter in manned extraterrestrial exploration. Tomorrow, the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch system will take off from Cape Canaveral, Florida to deliver supplies to the International Space Station, marking the first time a commercial space has docked there. So, how exactly will the groceries get there?
The SpaceX Falcon 9, that's how. Built by Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (aka SpaceX), this two-stage, rocket-propelled delivery system measures 54 x 3.6m wide and weighs in at 333 tonnes, being primarily constructed from aluminium lithium alloys. It is composed of a Falcon 9 rocket booster capped with the SpaceX Dragon capsule, which will hold the half-tonne of supplies.
Nine Merlin 1C engines each produce 56,699kg of force at liftoff while burning a mixture of liquid oxygen (LOX) and rocket-grade kerosene (RP-1) propellants. Once the first stage rockets have spent their fuel 345 seconds into launch, the lower-stage boosters will be jettisoned, along with the Falcon's carbon fibre interstage. From there, another single Merlin engine will ignite to provide the rest of the thrust needed to get up Dragon capsule to the ISS's geosynchronous orbit. The Falcon 9 is able to lift up to 10,432kg to Low Earth Orbit and 4536kg to GTO.
Seated atop this 450 thousand kilos of thrust is the reusable SpaceX Dragon capsule, itself a three-part design: a protective nose cone, a pressurised section that seats up to a crew of seven, holds fragile cargo, and the avionics, and an unpressurised trunk that holds cargo what doesn't need to breathe.
As it approaches the ISS after a two-day voyage, the Dragon will first spend some time practicing its approach to the station -- it's designed to autonomously dock with the ISS with only a manual override option -- because a fouled approach could potentially cause severe damage to the station itself and put the ISS's six crew members at risk. So yeah, no pressure. Once everything is in place, NASA will signal for the the Dragon to link up and off-load its cargo. It will then remain attached to the ISS for a fortnight before flaking off like a scab and splashing down into the Pacific for retrieval.
"I hope this becomes so routine that people won't even pay attention to it anymore," space station astronaut Donald Pettit told the AP. So does NASA. The agency has already sunk $US381 million into funding SpaceX (the company itself has spent over a billion) but if this flight is a success, SpaceX and the other handful of firms in the industry will make sure the roads to space stay paved for generations to come [SpaceLaunchReport - SpaceX - Wikipedia - The AP - Images: SpaceX]