The SpaceX Dragon capsule. NASA photo.
SpaceX is two for two, and opening a wider lead in the new space race.
The firm made history with a demonstration flight and docking in May, the first private contractor to dock a vehicle with the International Space Station. The Dragon capsule repeated the mission Oct. 10, and will remain connected to the Earth-facing side of the space station until the end of the month, when a deorbit and ocean splashdown are planned.
The Oct. 7 launch marked the first in a series of at least 12 missions SpaceX will fly under a $1.6 billion contract, delivering cargo to orbit and returning other cargo to Earth.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the agency is happy to have the help.
"This marks the start of a new era of exploration for the United States, one where we will reduce the cost of missions to low-Earth orbit so we can focus our resources on deep space human missions back around the moon, to an asteroid and eventually to Mars," Bolden said in an agency statement.
Astronauts snagged the Dragon with the station’s robotic arm as the station flew 250 miles above the Pacific Ocean, just west of Baja California. In coming days, they will unload 882 pounds of cargo, and reload the capsule with 1,673 pounds of cargo for return.
Orbital Sciences, the other firm aiming to run cargo missions to and from low orbit, has a rocket on the pad at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, but still requires about three weeks of fueling tests before a “hot fire” test on the pad. The rocket will be fitted with a simulated Cyngus spacecraft for a test flight later this year, and a demonstration flight with an actual Cygnus is planned in early 2013.
SpaceX is one of three companies that will split up to $1.1 billion from NASA to develop concept vehicles able to carry out manned missions. Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corp. will also be developing manned spacecraft concepts over the coming two years, with funding contingent on specific performance benchmarks and goals.