The spacecraft that started NASA’s relationship with SpaceX took off from the Space Coast for the last time late Friday night, signaling the end of the first generation of commercial missions to space.
SpaceX’s Dragon 1 began supplying the space station in 2012 after the conclusion of the space shuttle program in 2011. It was the first commercial craft to dock at the station, the first to carry live mice to the orbiting laboratory and the first to fly a reused booster for a government mission.
After Friday’s flight — SpaceX’s 20th in its first contract with NASA — Dragon 1 will be retired and replaced with the upgraded and updated Dragon 2. The new vehicle will start launching in the fall. It has been redesigned to have about 20% more volume for payloads, dock autonomously with the ISS and can be reused five times.
The current version can be reused three times. The Dragon that took off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s launch complex 40 at 11:50 p.m. Friday was on its third reuse — making it one of three Dragon 1’s that was reflown three times. Nine of the 20 Dragon 1 missions featured a reused vehicle.
Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of build and flight reliability, commended the team that has worked for more than a decade to develop the first iteration of Dragon at a press conference Friday afternoon.
“All in all, Dragon 1 had a great career and we are really proud of how it contributed to all the science on the ISS,” Koeingmsann said, adding that the vehicle carried nearly 100,000 pounds of cargo to space, including with Friday’s mission, about brought back more than 76,000 pounds of cargo.
Abhishek Tripathi, a Dragon mission director for SpaceX, tweeted about the milestone earlier Friday.
“All sorts of feelings today as we get ready to launch [SpaceX’s] last Dragon 1,” he said. “I was on console for the first trip to the ISS and soon I get to see off the last one. Time goes by fast!”
About eight minutes after launch, SpaceX also landed its booster back at Cape Canaveral’s Landing Zone 1, marking the 50th booster the company has successfully landed after a mission.
For its final ISS mission, Dragon 1 carried payloads to support dozens of experiments on the space station. Some of them will try to solve complex questions about what the future of human spaceflight might look like, such as one experiment that will study plant growth in space and whether plants can defend themselves against pathogens in microgravity. Another experiment, on the impact of radiation on cells which has been on the station since late 2018, will be returning with Dragon when it lands back on Earth in April.
On the commercial side, Adidas continues to experiment on the ISS, this time looking at how gravity impacts the manufacturing of the midsoles in its “Boost” running shoe. Adidas makes the soles out of pellets that are blown into a mold, but their final configuration is impacted by gravity. Without that in the equation, Adidas hopes to better understand how to manipulate forces on Earth to improve shoe production. The company previously sent an experiment to space to study how soccer balls behave in microgravity.
Delta Faucet is also tapping into the benefits of the weightless environment to study water droplet formation and water flow in Delta’s H2Okinetic showerhead technology. Paul Patton, the senior manager for front-end innovation and regulation at Delta Faucet, said during a press conference that the showerhead uses a specific droplet formation to help users feel like they’re getting more water pressure while using less water to conserve resources.
“We’re trying to understand our technology and say, ‘Have we hit the end of what we can do with it?” Patton said.
The growth of commercial work is expected to continue on the station. To accommodate it, Dragon also carried Bartolomeo, a commercial research platform developed by Airbus with the European Space Agency, on this mission that will be installed on the exterior of the ISS’ Columbus module.
“Bartolomeo is really the perfect platform to support activities such as Earth observation or technology development, space qualification activities, atmospheric research, in-orbit verification, as a few examples,” said Siegfried Monser of Airbus. “ … The exciting part is, the research is up to the community.”
As for Dragon, SpaceX has not yet decided what it will do with its retired fleet.
“I don’t know, maybe museums or something,” Koenigsmann said, laughing, “might find a science center.”
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