SpaceX preps for International Space Station resupply mission

NASA and SpaceX plan to launch a cargo resupply flight to the International Space Station (ISS) on October 7, 2012 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The launch of the unmanned Dragon spacecraft will be the first of 12 contracted flights by SpaceX to resupply the ISS – and marks the second trip by a Dragon to the station, following a successful demonstration mission in May.

According to NASA officials, the Dragon will be filled with approximately 1,000 pounds of supplies. This includes critical materials to support the 166 investigations planned for the station’s Expedition 33 crew, including 63 new investigations. 

The Dragon is slated to return to Earth with about 734 pounds of scientific materials, including results from human research, biotechnology, materials and educational experiments, as well as 504 pounds of space station hardware.

Materials hauled to the ISS by the Dragon will support experiments in plant cell biology, human biotechnology and various materials technology demonstrations, among others. One experiment, dubbed “Micro 6,” will examine the effects of microgravity on the opportunistic yeast Candida albicans, which is present on all humans.

Another known as Resist Tubule will evaluate how microgravity affects the growth of cell walls in a plant called Arabidopsis. To be sure, about 50 percent of the energy expended by terrestrial-bound plants is dedicated to structural support to overcome gravity.

Understanding how the genes that control this energy expenditure operate in microgravity could have implications for future genetically modified plants and food supply. 

Both Micro 6 and Resist Tubule will return with the Dragon at the end of its mission.

Expedition 33 Commander Sunita Williams of NASA and Aki Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency will use a robot arm to grapple the Dragon following its rendezvous with the station on Wednesday, Oct. 10. 

They will attach the Dragon to the Earth-facing port of the station’s Harmony module for a few weeks while crew members unload cargo and load experiment samples for return to Earth.

Unlike the other cargo vehicles that resupply the station, the commercial SpaceX craft is designed to return to Earth safely instead of burning up in the atmosphere. Dragon is slated for re-entry in late October for a parachute-assisted splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of southern California.