The effort to carry astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit took a step forward in August, when NASA announced agreements worth a combined $1.1 billion to help SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada Corporation develop such capabilities. But Dragon's arrival at the space station Wednesday – the first flight under a 12-flight, $1.6-billion contract – shows that the goal of bringing commercial carriers into the station resupply business is now being realized.
SpaceX is one of two US companies with resupply contracts. The second, Orbital Sciences Corp., is slated to test-fly its Antares booster by year's end and loft its first demonstration flight early next year.
Thursday, the station crew is schedule to open Dragon's hatch and inspect the craft's interior before unloading the cargo. Dragon will remain docked at the station until Oct. 28, when it's slated to return 1,673 pounds of hardware and experiment samples to Earth. Dragon's ability to return cargo from the space station to Earth is a unique capability among all the craft currently serving the station. Dragon will parachute to an ocean splashdown off the southern California coast, where it will be plucked out of the water and returned to an unloading facility at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro, Calif.