For the final time, a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule approached the International Space Station Monday for capture with the research lab’s robotic arm, delivering more than 4,300 pounds of food, experiments and spare parts. Future Dragon resupply missions will use a new spaceship design to automatically dock with the space station.
The unpiloted cargo freighter completed a two-day pursuit of the space station Monday with an automated approach to the orbiting research outpost.
After moving into position less than 40 feet below the station, the Dragon capsule halted its approach and astronaut Jessica Meir took control of the research lab’s Canadian-built robotic arm. Meir, assisted by crewmate Drew Morgan, captured the Dragon spacecraft at 6:25 a.m. EST Monday, more than a half-hour ahead of schedule.
Meir grappled the cargo capsule as the station soared 262 miles over the Pacific Ocean northwest of Vancouver, British Columbia.
The successful supply deliver marked the 20th time a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule has arrived at the space station since May 2012. The mission, known as CRS-20 or SpaceX-20, also the final flight of SpaceX’s first-generation Dragon spacecraft, which the company is retiring in favor of a new Dragon capsule designed to dock directly with the space station without needing to be captured by the robotic arm.
“The SpaceX-20 mission is a milestone for several reasons,” Meir said moments after using the robot arm to capture the Dragon spacecraft Monday. “It is, of course, the 20th SpaceX cargo mission, but it is also the last SpaceX cargo vehicle captured by the Canadarm as future vehicles will automatically dock to the space station.”
Future Dragon missions will dock directly with the International Space Station.
The Dragon cargo ship that arrived at the space station Monday is flying in space for the third time. It previously flew to the station on the CRS-10 and CRS-16 missions in February 2017 and December 2018, according to SpaceX.
“This is actually the third time that this specific Dragon capsule has arrived here at station, demonstrating the more sustainable approach that will be paramount to the future of spaceflight,” Meir said. “We welcome SpaceX-20 and are eager to reveal its bounty of science and space station hardware and supplies. Congratulations to SpaceX and all of the ISS partner teams involved.”
The Dragon capsule launched Friday night from Cape Canaveral aboard a Falcon 9 rocket.
The current mission is SpaceX’s last flight under a $3 billion contract NASA awarded the company in December 2008. The Commercial Resupply Services, or CRS, contract was intended to ensure the space station continued receiving regular cargo shipments after the retirement of the space shuttle, which occurred in 2011.
With the delivery of this mission’s cargo load Monday, SpaceX has carried more than 94,000 pounds (about 43 metric tons) to the International Space Station on 20 missions. Assuming the current mission ends successfully next month, 20 Dragon missions will have returned about 74,000 pounds (33 metric tons) of cargo from the space station back to Earth.
Items packed into the Dragon capsule that arrived at the space station Monday include an outdoor science deck to be installed outside the research lab’s European Columbus module. The external platform, named Bartolomeo, will be attached to the outer hull of the Columbus module later this month, and astronauts will perform a spacewalk in April to connect wiring harnesses to bring the new facility into use.
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