The Dragon capsule, with solar panels extended, carries out its "fly-under" of the ISS, clouds forming the backdrop belowNASA
May 24, 2012 — On Thursday morning, Space Exploration Technologies' Dragon capsule successfully carried out a complex set of orbital maneuvers around the International Space Station (ISS). The SpaceX Dragon edged 2.4 kilometers (1.5 miles) from the orbiting outpost completing a "fly-under" to give the astronauts onboard the ISS this historic photo opportunity.
During the maneuvers, Dragon tested its UHF communications unit and switched on its relative GPS system — used to decipher the relative positions of the capsule and ISS. All systems performed just as they should.
Now the final and most critical test awaits the first commercially built unmanned spacecraft to visit the ISS. On May 25, it will carry out a second flyby and then make its closest approach to the station yet, coming within grappling distance of the station's 58-ft long Canadarm2. Berthing is expected to occur at around 11:20 a.m. EDT after Expedition 31 Flight Engineers Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers have grabbed the cargo ship with the robotic arm.
Once the Dragon is attached, it is scheduled to spend a week docked to the space station where cargo can be unloaded and reloaded with items to be sent back to Earth. On May 31, it will splash down off the coast of California where it will be retrieved.
A high-resolution close-up of the Dragon.NASA
As we see the Dragon's mission successfully achieve each of its goals, we are edging closer to to the validation of commercial cargo launches to low-Earth orbit, paving the way toward commercial crew missions — a goal that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk hopes will happen by 2015. But first, the unmanned Dragon will have to start work delivering supplies to the ISS, fulfilling its $1.6-billion NASA contract for 12 resupply launches.