For the third time in history, a private spacecraft docked with the International Space Station (ISS) and returned safely to Earth. On March 1, 2013, California’s Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) lifted the Dragon spacecraft into orbit aboard its Falcon 9 Launch Vehicle, bound for the ISS.

Dragon Leads the Way

An earlier flight in May 2012 successfully delivered cargo to the ISS with the Dragon. In October of 2012, a Dragon became the first commercial spacecraft to not only deliver cargo to the ISS, but return cargo from the ISS to Earth as well. At present, Dragon is the only spacecraft capable of both delivery and pickup at the ISS and returning to Earth. Russia’s Progress, Europe’s ATV and Japan’s H2 spacecraft can deliver cargo to the station, but all burn up on re-entry. Other craft used by governments can deliver crew to the station and return, but not cargo.

After the March 1 launch, the Falcon 9 lifted Dragon successfully into orbit with over 1200 pounds of cargo, but some problems developed with a thruster pod. Rendezvous was delayed for a day while troubleshooting, and Dragon docked with the ISS on March 3. The capsule spent a few weeks attached to the space station, undergoing systems checks and taking on cargo. On March 26, Dragon began the five and a half hour flight back, carrying over 2600 pounds of scientific experiments and other cargo. The spacecraft splashed safely into the Pacific Ocean about 200 miles off Baja California.

NASA has contracted SpaceX for 12 resupply flights for the ISS. Future plans include developing the Dragon series into a crew-capable craft that can carry astronauts aloft to the space station. In this role, Dragon will complement the Russian Soyuz capsule currently used for crew ferry missions. NASA has lacked a crew-capable space vehicle since the end of Space Shuttle flights by the Obama administration in 2011. Meanwhile, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corporation is developing another reusable cargo craft contracted by NASA for resupply to the ISS. That system is expected to come on line soon.

Bright Future for Commercial Space Flight

Another future mission for Dragon is the delivery of the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) to the ISS. BEAM is developed by Nevada’s Bigelow Aerospace to provide modular extra space for the ISS, for temporary experiments or emergency housing. Bigelow is developing commercial space station components, and has previously launched two habitat prototypes into orbit, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2.

Bigelow has demonstrated the feasibility of commercially deploying habitat technology to space. Bigelow plans to deploy a module-based commercial space station called the BA-330. SpaceX’s Dragon flight to the ISS for Bigelow carrying BEAM is expected to occur in 2015.

Public Passenger Flights

Besides these projects, Virgin Galactic has made two flights to suborbital space with passenger shuttle prototypes, and has acquired a manufacturing arm known as The Spaceship Company. Orbital flights are expected soon from this project. California-based XCOR is working on a similar program, and so is Blue Origin in Texas.
Dragon and SpaceX appear destined for the history books, not only for these missions, but also for establishing the feasibility of commercial space flight. Perhaps more importantly, the flights for Bigelow will provide a model for standardization and cooperation within the industry. It seems as if the sky is not the limit for the future of commercial space flight.