Four Astronauts Successfully Launch to Space Station

SpaceX, the company led by Elon Musk, has successfully launched a Crew-3 mission to the International Space Station. The four astronauts were on board for what is expected to be a six month stay on the station. This launch was made possible by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft.

Unlike the Dragon spacecraft, which is capable of returning significant amounts of cargo from the station back to Earth for recovery, this version does not possess that ability. The crew will have to ride it out until another mission picks them up in six months time – a similar scenario as the Russian Soyuz capsule currently employed by NASA to bring home its astronauts from the station.

The crew will return to Earth aboard this modified version of the Dragon spacecraft, shown here without solar arrays deployed. Credit: SpaceX/NASA A SpaceX representative confirmed that a deal has been reached with NASA for a fourth mission as part of the Commercial Resupply Services contract, noted in March 2012. SpaceX are currently working towards being able to launch their Dragon capsule on a Falcon 9 v1.0 later this year.

NASA spokesman Josh Byerly said the agency would not comment on the status of any deal until it is closed, which typically happens when a ‘letter of intent’ becomes a ‘mission contract’.

SpaceX is one of five companies working to develop crew transport capability for the ISS, along with Boeing, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser and ATK. The Commercial Crew Development program aims for independent American human spaceflight capability. If SpaceX’ spacecraft is ready before 2016, NASA could choose to send its astronauts on the Dragon spacecraft under an unfunded agreement with SpaceX.

The next launch to the ISS is currently set for April 20 and will see a Russian Soyuz make a return trip with three additional crewmembers. If all goes well, two days later another Falcon 9 will lift off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying a demonstration payload for Orbcomm.

The first flight of a crewed Dragon spacecraft is expected to take place in 2014.

Piggybacking on the next launch of a Russian Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome will be an approximately 200 kg Russian Air Force satellite known as Kosmos-2491. This is expected to replace the similar Molnia-1 spacecraft currently in orbit. The Molnia series of satellites are designed to monitor missile launches. According to , the spacecraft is built by NPO Lavochkin and weighs 1,400 kilograms.

NASA has again awarded three-year contracts to each of SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corporation for continued development of their crew transport systems. According to , the latest awards bring the total number of funded agreements for both companies up to $449 million and $227 million respectively since the start of 2011.

SpaceX is developing a manned version of its Dragon capsule, called Crew Dragon . The spacecraft is expected to be capable of carrying seven passengers or a mix of crew and cargo to the ISS.

Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser spacecraft is designed to carry seven astronauts, or a combination of crew and cargo, to low-Earth orbit. The vehicle will be able to stay docked at the station for up two weeks, which is significantly longer than its 90-day unmanned predecessor, the Space Shuttle.