Space Station crew begins unloading freighter

By Ted Bonnitt on May 26th, 2012
Space Station crew begins unloading freighter

Crew members aboard the International Space Station have opened the hatch to the Dragon cargo capsule today, preparing to unload its cargo.

The hatch between the newly arrived SpaceX Dragon spacecraft and the Harmony module of the International Space Station was opened by NASA Astronaut Don Pettit at 5:53 am EDT as the station flew 253 miles above Auckland, New Zealand. 

The hatch opening begins four days of operations to upload more than 1,000 pounds of cargo from the first commercial spacecraft to visit the space station. 

Wearing protective masks and goggles, as is customary for the opening of a hatch to any newly arrived vehicle at the station, Pettit entered the Dragon with Station Commander Oleg Kononenko. The goggles and masks will be removed once the station atmosphere has had a chance to mix air with the air inside the Dragon itself.

After the arriving cargo is brought aboard the station, Dragon will be loaded with 1,367 pounds of hardware and cargo no longer needed aboard the station in preparation for the spacecraft's return to Earth on May 31. 

Dragon and station hatches will be closed on May 30. 

On May 31, the Expedition 31 crew members will detach Dragon from Harmony, maneuver it to a 33-foot release point and un-grapple the capsule. Dragon will deorbit approximately four hours after leaving the station, taking about 30 minutes to re-enter Earth's atmosphere and landing in the Pacific Ocean about 250 miles west of southern California. 

Dragon is the first commercial spacecraft to journey to the space station.  The highly anticipated mission fills a gaping hole in the United State's launch capability following the retirement of the Space Shuttle program.

Currently, the United States has no operational manned launch system, and is dependent on Russia for access to the space station.

If all goes to plan, the commercial space industry will begin ferrying astronauts to the space station in 2017.

If the mission is successful, the re-usable unmanned vessel will begin regular supply runs to the space station later this year.

NASA signed a $1.6 billion contract with SpaceX for a minimum of 12 re-supply missions.  SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk, who made his fortune with PayPal, the internet's leading payment system.  Musk's other day job is running Tesla Motors, a manufacturer of electric vehicles.

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