Why SpaceX’s Dragon capsule is vital to the future of space exploration

How this incredible spacecraft is kick starting the commercialisation of space.


On 8 October 2012 SpaceX’s Dragon capsule lifted off on its first scheduled cargo mission to the International Space Station. In fact, it was the first such mission to ever be performed by a private space company, and it means that SpaceX are currently the only commercial enterprise capable of resupplying the ISS. If some people doubted the company’s ambitions before, they definitely don’t now.

This wasn’t the first flight of Dragon, though. This spacecraft has been a huge success story not only for SpaceX but also for NASA, who has invested a considerable sum of money in Dragon. In December 2010, Dragon became the first private spacecraft to launch into orbit and be successfully recovered, a huge milestone for SpaceX. Then, in May 2012 SpaceX again made headlines around the world when it performed a second Dragon flight, this time docking it with the ISS.

Dragon is currently the only spacecraft in operation that is able to both take supplies to the ISS and return cargo to Earth, with the latter including things like experiments and tools that need to be repaired. Other spacecraft in operation, or soon to be, that take supplies to the ISS (like the ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle or Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus spacecraft) burn up on re-entry, while Russia’s Soyuz capsule is used only to ferry astronauts to and from the station, and not cargo. This makes SpaceX imperative to the continued success of the ISS.

The next step will be to make Dragon human-rated. By 2015 at the earliest an upgraded Dragon spacecraft will be able to take astronauts into orbit, and possibly beyond.

You can follow Jonathan on Twitter @Astro_Jonny

Image courtesy of SpaceX and NASA

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