Special Delivery

A new craft called the Dragon delivers supplies to astronauts in space

May 29, 2012

The Dragon blasted into space on Tuesday morning.

The International Space Station (ISS), a floating space lab in the sky, is currently home to six astronauts. When those astronauts need groceries and other necessities, they cannot stop by a local supermarket. Instead, they rely on shipments from Earth. On Friday, a new type of cargo ship arrived at the ISS.

Since NASA retired its shuttles last summer, only Russia, Japan and Europe have been transporting cargo to the ISS. Last week, that changed. An American company called SpaceX sent a supply ship called the Dragon to the ISS. It was the first time that a company—instead of a government—made a delivery to the space station.

The space station's robotic arm grabbed the Dragon on Friday.
The space station's robotic arm grabbed the Dragon on Friday.

Making History

The gleaming white Dragon blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, early on May 22. After three days of flying, the bell-shaped ship approached the ISS. Since the Dragon is a brand new type of vehicle, NASA said it wanted to be extra careful. The space agency ordered extra checks of the craft, which put the operation slightly behind schedule.

Once the tests were completed on Friday, NASA astronaut Donald Pettit used the space station's 58-foot robot arm to grab the supply ship. The two craft soared 250 miles above Australia. “Looks like we've got us a dragon by the tail,” Pettit announced.

NASA's controllers applauded. SpaceX employees lifted their arms in triumph. “There's so much that could have gone wrong and it went right,” said Elon Musk, who runs SpaceX. “This really is, I think, going to be recognized as a significantly historical step forward in space travel.”

A Return-Trip Ship

The dragon is different from the other ships that have been making deliveries to the space station. Those other ships cannot carry anything back because they burn up as they re-enter the atmosphere. The Dragon, on the other hand, is designed to safely return to Earth and parachute into the ocean. The ISS crew plans to send the Dragon home, filled with 1,400 pounds of science experiments and equipment.

This time around, no humans rode aboard the Dragon. But SpaceX hopes that astronauts will ride its spaceship soon. Ever since NASA retired its shuttles, U.S. astronauts have been without a ride of their own. To get to the space station, they have been traveling aboard Russian spacecraft.

On Saturday, Pettit floated into the Dragon and took a look around. He noted that the Dragon is roomier than a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. “Flying up in a human-rated Dragon is not going to be an issue,” he said.

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