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Enhanced Dragon capsule begins launch preparations

Posted: October 27, 2011

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SpaceX's first Dragon spaceship scheduled to fly to the International Space Station is now in Florida, where it will be assembled, fueled and attached to a Falcon rocket for blastoff as soon as Dec. 19.

The Dragon spacecraft pictured inside the SpaceX hangar at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Credit: Mike Brown/Spaceflight Now
The gumdrop-shaped capsule was trucked cross-country from Hawthorne, Calif., the headquarters of Space Exploration Technologies Corp. SpaceX builds its Falcon launch vehicles, rocket engines, and Dragon spacecraft in a spacious 550,000-square-foot factory near Los Angeles International Airport.

It arrived Sunday at the SpaceX hangar in Cape Canaveral. The first and second stages of the Dragon's Falcon 9 booster are already at the launch site.

The Dragon's service module, or trunk, will arrive at Cape Canaveral in the next week or so, according to Kirstin Brost Grantham, a SpaceX spokesperson.

The Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket will be prepared in the same hangar, then attached to each other and rolled on rails 600 feet to Launch Complex 40, SpaceX's launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

According to Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, engineers completed a 12-day thermal vacuum test of the Dragon spacecraft with "no notable issues" before shipment to Florida.

SpaceX added two solar array wings to generate electricity and a redundant active thermal control loop to reject heat into space and project the spacecraft from extreme temperatures.

The Dragon's first flight in December 2010 lasted three hours. It exercised the craft's control, electronics, propulsion and re-entry systems, but it didn't demonstrate the Dragon's complex suite of rendezvous sensors required to reach the space station.

Other new systems on the upcoming flight include the hatch, a bay door housing the craft's grapple fixture, and a claw that provides electrical and data connections between the capsule and its trunk, or service module, Musk told Congress on Wednesday.

Musk said several joint tests conducted by SpaceX and NASA have tested the Dragon's berthing port, verified acoustic noise levels inside the spacecraft's cabin, checked the vehicle's tolerance to radiation, and tested for electromagnetic interference.

Artist's concept of the Dragon spacecraft approaching the International Space Station. Credit: SpaceX
NASA and SpaceX are still finalizing the mission's final flight plan. NASA officials previously expressed concerns about a secondary payload of two Orbcomm communications satellites to be carried on the Falcon 9 rocket during the next launch.

Liftoff of the next Dragon is scheduled aboard a Falcon 9 rocket for no earlier than Dec. 19, but the official launch date will be set by NASA based on other international traffic visiting the space station. More safety and hazard reviews are also still on tap before the space agency and its partners give final approval for the Dragon to approach the international lab.

Musk and NASA officials acknowledge the mission is likely to slip until January or later.

SpaceX is conducting the demonstration flight in NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, or COTS, program. Under a Space Act Agreement, NASA is providing $396 million to SpaceX for development of the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft. The company funded the rest of the development with private investment.

The COTS program was conceived to create U.S. space transportation systems to haul cargo to sustain the space station after the retirement of the space shuttle.

SpaceX's agreement with NASA initially called for three government-sponsored test flights, but officials agreed to combine the second and third demos, known as Dragon C2 and C3, into a single mission to expedite the delivery of supplies to the space station.

The Dragon capsule circled Earth twice, but did not go to the space station, during the first SpaceX test flight in the COTS program last year.