Mission CRS-14: the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft has reached the International Space Station

The Dragon cargo spacecraft captured by the International Space Station's Canadarm2 robotic arm (Image NASA TV)
The Dragon cargo spacecraft captured by the International Space Station’s Canadarm2 robotic arm (Image NASA TV)

A little while ago the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft was captured by the Canadarm2 robotic arm on the International Space Station. Norishige Kanai and Scott Tingle, assisted by their colleague Ricky Arnold, managed the operation then started moving the Dragon to the berthing point at the Harmony module. The cargo spacecraft blasted off last Monday.

The Dragon spacecraft’s approach to the International Space Station follows a procedure that has become routine but remains long and delicate. The Station’s safety is the top priority so every little step of the Dragon gets checked. Only if all goes well in the spacecraft’s position and velocity they proceed with the next step and in case of any problems can be aborted at every step.

Tomorrow, the International Space Station crew will open the Dragon spacecraft’s hatch and will start unloading its cargo. The Dragon will be docked with the Station for a few weeks. In the course of the next month, a series of experiments and other objects to be brought back to Earth will be loaded into it, which is the only cargo spacecraft that can return to Earth intact.

The Dragon will leave the International Space Station with its new cargo. The CRS-14 mission will be completed with its descent into the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of California. This last phase is important as well because various in-depth analyzes of samples can be carried out only in specialized laboratories on Earth.

The CRS-14 mission keeps on developing SpaceX reuse policy because it’s the third one with a Dragon spacecraft that was already used, in this case on the CRS-8 mission that began in April 2016. It’s also the second one to be launched on a Falcon 9 rocket with a first stage that was also used though this time it wasn’t recovered. In the coming weeks, the start of launches with the first stage version called “Block 5” is scheduled for Elon Musk’s company.

Various parts of the Dragon spacecraft get destroyed at least partially when they return to Earth and must be replaced, such as the heat shield and the parachutes, but almost all the spacecraft’s interior can be reused. In the case of Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage, the new version requires less maintenance between missions. The first stage used for the CRS-14 mission was still exploited to perform some reentry maneuvers to collect more useful data.

SpaceX keeps on working, in this case together with NASA, on the technologies that allow the ever-increasing reuse of the various components of the Dragon spacecraft and its rockets. The results are proving the used vehicles’ reliability, a crucial step for their use to become routine and the costs of space missions to drop significantly.

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