The first privately owned spacecraft to reach the International Space Station was launched from a Florida facility last Tuesday. Assistant Professor of Physics Benjamin Mazin spoke with the Daily Nexus about the event.
The unmanned shuttle was launched by the California-based space transport company Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) and docked at the ISS last Friday. The spacecraft con- tained over 1,000 pounds of cargo — including food, student- submitted proposals for flight experiments, astronaut supplies and even the cremated remains of over 308 deceased persons — and is currently undergoing a four-day process of unloading and reloading with experiments and other cargo before it returns to Earth this Thursday.
Mazin said while the launch did not utilize any new or updated technology, it is a major milestone for space transport companies as SpaceX managed to build a cheaper capsule than NASA, whose shuttle program was excluded from the 2011 national budget.
“In the last 10 years, NASA has tried something called the Constellation Program [in which] they tried to build a rocket not much more capable than the Falcon 9,” Mazin said. “They spent $10 billion doing it and never finished it before it got canceled, whereas SpaceX — for maybe one or two billion [dollars] at most — has now built this suc- cessful rocket bringing supplies to space stations. It is exciting not only because it is SpaceX breaking new ground, but also because they are doing it in an affordable way that is going to be really important for future NASA missions.”
With more successful missions to ISS, the station could potentially act as a center for ongoing space exploration research and activity. According to Mazin, this would allow commercial crafts to ship cargo and astronauts while simultaneously supporting research to enable further exploration.
“[The ISS] is sort of a floating laboratory in lower orbit where scientists can study the effects of microgravity in the space environ- ment on people and things,” Mazin said. “It is really a lab at the core for studying how people can live in space for a long period of time. The space station is [the] first step to understanding how we can keep people in space for long enough periods to allow us to do interesting things, like send people to Mars.”
According to Mazin, such research includes the study of light, as the ISS is located in the Earth’s lower orbit, where the radiation-blocking atmosphere that is pres- ent in higher orbit is nonexistent.
“Unfortunately, the Earth’s atmosphere blocks a lot of the radiation coming from space, especially in the X-ray and gamma ray, but also in the far infrared where the Earth’s atmosphere emits a lot of radiation,” Mazin said. “By getting above the atmo- sphere, we can see parts of the electromag- netic spectrum that we couldn’t see from the ground and we also have a much more stable environment to work from.”
Created through the combined efforts of space programs in the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and Europe, the ISS is the largest manmade object in space.
Although SpaceX plans to send astro- nauts on other missions using the Dragon — a reusable spacecraft — Mazin said the company may still need to perfect their launch-and-abort system before following through with such efforts.
“I think they will need to do a lot more test flights before it is safe to put people on the rocket,” Mazin said. “I think it will be a little while before they’re flying astronauts but today is a vital first step for them to get there.”
The SpaceX Dragon charges $2,995 per gram to send cremated remains into Earth’s lower orbit; the remains of actor James Doohan, who played Captain Scott on the original Star Trek series, were among those sent into space on Tuesday.