Dragon Spacecraft Delivers Cargo That Advances Journey to Mars, Benefits Life on Earth

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off April 8, 2016, carrying a Dragon spacecraft to begin the CRS-8 mission delivering experiments and cargo to the International Space Station. (NASA.gov image)

A SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off April 8, 2016, carrying a Dragon spacecraft to begin the CRS-8 mission delivering experiments and cargo to the International Space Station. (NASA.gov image)

BREVARD COUNTY • KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FLORIDA – A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Friday afternoon carrying a Dragon capsule loaded with 7,000 pounds of cargo, including scientific gear, crew supplies and an expandable module demonstration to deliver to the International Space Station as NASA continues research in the proving ground of space ahead of a future journey to Mars.

From genetics and biology to plant growth and engineering, the payloads aboard the Dragon showcase the diverse research fields NASA is covering in Earth orbit at the station to set a course for astronauts as they traverse millions of miles through space during future missions.

“This mission is an amazing bonanza for the biological sciences,” said Kirt Costello, deputy chief scientist for the space station program.

Friday’s brilliant launch etched a yellow streak through the sky beginning at Space Launch Complex 40, a launch pad only a couple of miles from the processing hall where engineers from NASA and Lockheed Martin are assembling the Orion spacecraft that will fly atop the Space Launch System rocket to send astronauts into deep space.

Ahead of the launch, NASA and industry provided updates on the Orion spacecraft and innovations in development at Kennedy, including ground systems, for future deep space missions.

The Orion pressure vessel is being assembled into a fully functional spacecraft as it sits inside a work stand in the high bay of the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building, the same area where Apollo command modules and lunar modules were readied for their missions.

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft nears the International Space Station during the CRS-8 mission to deliver experiments and supplies to the International Space Station. (NASA.gov image)

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft nears the International Space Station during the CRS-8 mission to deliver experiments and supplies to the International Space Station. (NASA.gov image)

The spacecraft is much larger than previous capsule designs and will feature numerous state-of-the-art avionics systems and technologies aimed at keeping astronauts safe during flights in deep space, said Scott Wilson, NASA’s Orion production manager.

Across the street from the Orion assembly area, scientists in the Swamp Works lab at Kennedy detailed the development of robots that could be tasked in the future with surveying asteroids up-close, digging up soils on other worlds to make fuel and air or conducting random searches in a group to gather resources on their own.

Much of the research on Earth is performed with an eye toward testing machinery and techniques in Earth orbit before committing to use them on missions far from the home planet.

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For example, the scientists behind the Veggie experiments that already produced lettuce good enough to eat in space continue to advance up the vegetable chain to see what it will take to ultimately grow a space-borne garden of items like tomatoes, radishes and nutrient-rich versions of lettuce and cabbage.

Before astronauts can grow vegetables on the way to Mars, though, the team needs to see what grows best in space and refine the steps needed for success. That’s where the space station comes in. Packed inside the cargo bags on Dragon are pillow-shaped pouches loaded with seeds for Chinese cabbage along with a nutrient-rich material.

The astronauts will load the pouches into specially designed trays that will give the plants the right amount of light to grow.

News media members see the Orion pressure vessel in a work stand at the Operations and Checkout Building where the spacecraft is being assembled for Exploration Mission 1 in 2018.

News media members see the Orion pressure vessel in a work stand at the Operations and Checkout Building where the spacecraft is being assembled for Exploration Mission 1 in 2018.

“There were a few things we needed to solve along the way as we grow these plants,” said Gioia Massa, the researcher leading the Veg-03 experiment that launched aboard the Dragon.

By working on the orbiting laboratory in a variety of areas, astronauts can help researchers decipher some of the challenges of deep space missions while operating near Earth. As Boeing and SpaceX progress toward flight tests and operational missions with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, the space station team is anticipating the added research larger crews will enable on the orbiting laboratory to understand and address the challenges of long-duration spaceflight.

Once crews begin missions beyond Earth orbit in the 2020s and to Mars in the 2030s, they will need additional room to live and work. That is why the BEAM payload, short for Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, has captured the imagination of many in the space community, including engineers who hope it can serve as prototype for a large habitat or independent spacecraft in the future.

The appeal of the design is that it can be packed to a size small enough to fit on a rocket, but expands once in space to offer astronauts a much bigger area to live and work inside during long-duration missions. BEAM is about 6 feet tall packed inside the Dragon’s trunk. Once connected to the station, it will expand to more than 13 feet in length and 10.5 feet in diameter.

Kirk Shireman

Kirk Shireman

“The spacefaring world has been looking at expandables for quite some time,” said Kirk Shireman, manager of the International Space Station Program.

“The question is, how can you package something in a small volume to get it on a rocket and get it through the atmosphere, and then expand it to a size where people can live and work. Expandables could be an answer to that problem.”

The Dragon caught up with the space station in orbit on Sunday morning. The station’s robotic arm pulled it close and locked it into position, marking the first time the SpaceX Dragon and Orbital ATK Cygnus commercial cargo craft have been at the station at the same time.

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With six vehicles now docked with the station, the Dragon’s arrival also ties the record for the most vehicles at the station at once.

“With the research that we do on station, it’s critical that we have a constant supply chain coming up and coming back down,” said Shireman.

“We’re looking for this flight to really set the tone and get us back to flying at a regular pace.”

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