A test flight of the Dragon capsule planned for early February this year is being delayed to allow more time to prepare for the mission, according to an announcement by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). According to an email sent from SpaceX to a number of media sources the flight, which was scheduled to occur no earlier than February 7th, has not yet been rescheduled.
“We believe that there are a few areas that will benefit from additional work,” said Kirstin Brost Grantham, a spokeswoman for SpaceX. “We will continue to test and review data. We will launch when the vehicle is ready.”
The now postponed mission had planned to test the Dragon capsule’s berthing capabilities after performing a 2-mile fly-by of the ISS, followed by a docking procedure. The same capsule would proceed to test reentry performance with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean near California.
The test flight would have been the second and possibly final flight of the capsule before SpaceX begins delivering cargo to the International Space Station, as part of a 1.6 billion USD contract under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) project. If the capsule (typically launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket) is proven capable of safely and reliably attaining low Earth orbit, SpaceX will later upgrade the capsule to carry passengers to the ISS under another NASA contract valued at 75 million USD.
The development of a commercial vehicle capable of transporting crew to low Earth orbit is a high priority for NASA, as they have been forced to rely on the Russian Soyuz capsule since the retirement of the Space Shuttle. NASA currently pays Russian approximately 60 million USD per astronaut transported to the ISS in the Soyuz.
The COTS project is part of a larger NASA initiative that laid out in its 2011 Strategic Plan, which emphasizes “partner[ing] with US industry to implement safe, reliable, and cost-effective access to and from low Earth orbit and the ISS.” In addition to increasing the safety and reliability with which low Earth orbit can be accessed, the purpose of supporting commercial access to space is to allow NASA to “focus [NASA] resources on developing systems that can safely reach beyond low Earth orbit,” such as the NASA Space Launch System currently under development.
The video below shows an animation of a crewed Dragon capsule transporting astronauts to and from the ISS.