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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

SpaceX Dragon on its way to the ISS!

By Phil Plait

At 07:44 UTC, May 22, 2012, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket thundered into space, carrying the Dragon capsule into orbit.

So first, holy wow, and yay! That's fantastic news! This was the second attempt, after a glitchy valve caused a launch abort a few days ago.

This morning's launch went very smoothly. After achieving orbit, the uncrewed Dragon craft decoupled from the rocket and successfully deployed its solar panels, a key milestone in the mission. When that happened, the cheering from the SpaceX team could be heard in the webcast background, which was delightful. A lot of people on Twitter commented on how NASA's narration of the event was very stoic and calm, but the SpaceX webcast was very emotional and involved*. I think both of those are as they should be!

Here's a short video of the launch:

The entire SpaceX webcast is also online. The key moments are the launch at 44:30 into the video, main engine cutoff and start of the second stage at 47:30, the rocket achieving orbit and Dragon capsule separation at 54:00, and then the solar arrays deploying at 56:20.

Seriously, watch that video at the 56:20 mark. When the arrays deploy, you can hear a huge cheer from the SpaceX employees watching. That was awesome. The SpaceX announcer at deployment made me smile. You can really hear the wonder and excitement in her voice.

So why was this launch important? SpaceX is the first entirely private company to attempt to dock a capsule with the International Space Station. If this mission is a success, it's a big step toward private companies being able to do resupply missions to ISS, including bringing astronauts to and from orbit (which SpaceX plans to be able to do by 2015). And perhaps most importantly, in the long run it means lowering the cost of putting materials in orbit, and that is absolutely critical in creating a permanent human presence in space.

This launch today is just the start of the mission. On Friday, May 25, the Dragon will undergo a series of maneuvers near and around ISS to show that it can be controlled well enough to dock. If that shakes out, then it will approach the station and an astronaut on board ISS will grab it with the robotic arm, bringing it in to mate. There are supplies on the capsule, including a dozen or so student science experiments to be performed. Finally, after over a week in space, it will undock and return to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific ocean off the coast of California.

We've all been waiting a long, long time for this, so my honest and hearty congratulations to the crew at SpaceX and at NASA!

We live in the future, folks.

Image credit: SpaceX

* I also couldn't help but notice they use the metric system! Hey NASA, ahem.

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