What SpaceX and NASA hope to do is part of a plan begun under President George W. Bush and enhanced by President Obama to turn travel to and from the space station into a largely private and less costly venture, freeing up NASA to plan for deep-space journeys to asteroids, the moon and ultimately Mars.
“It’s proving to be harder and more complicated and more expensive than [SpaceX founder] Elon Musk anticipated,” said Dale Ketcham of the Spaceport Research and Policy Institute at Central Florida University. “But it’s still more efficient than NASA.”
The company and the space agency are “targeting” Monday for the launch, but more delays could crop up if the final data check turns up problems. “We’re going to check and double-check and triple-check before launch day,” said Kirstin Brost Grantham, a spokeswoman for SpaceX.
If all goes well, the flight will deliver 1,100 pounds of food, water and other cargo to the 16-nation outpost, a capability the United States gave up when it retired the space shuttle last year. (Cargo vehicles built by Russia, Europe and Japan now supply the six-person crew.) Even more crucially, a successful docking would mark a milestone for commercial space companies.
NASA and SpaceX officials are emphasizing the excitement of the mission while tamping down expectations, noting just how difficult it will be to dock a new spacecraft to the space station. Many systems on the unmanned Dragon capsule, including its solar panels and the hardware and software needed to dock with the station, are being flown for the first time.
“This is a really tough flight,” William H. Gerstenmaier, NASA’s top official for human spaceflight, said during a recent news briefing. “What we’re asking them to do is amazing.”
The launch was originally designed as a fly-by of the station in which the Dragon would demonstrate it could approach, navigate with precision, “free-drift,” hold nearby and abort if necessary.
But last year SpaceX and Musk asked NASA for permission to try an actual docking. NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program manager, Alan Lindenmoyer, said that after a safety review, the agency decided to allow an attempted docking if the other maneuvers succeed.
The docking, if it occurs, will be on the third day of the flight, and the Dragon capsule will stay attached to the station for up to 18 days.
Although the craft will carry cargo, Musk said the effort remains “explicitly a test flight. Indeed, we may not succeed in getting all the way to the space station.” Later he said, “A lot can go wrong with a mission like this.”