SpaceX launched the maiden flight of an upgraded cargo Dragon spacecraft on December 6 carrying supplies for the International Space Station (ISS).
The SpaceX CRS-21 mission was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 16:17 UTC. Approximately 11 minutes after lift-off, the spacecraft separated from the rocket’s upper stage beginning its journey to the ISS.
Following a more than 24-hour chase, the CRS-21 cargo Dragon spacecraft will rendezvous and autonomously dock with the zenith port of the orbiting laboratory’s Harmony module at 18:30 UTC on December 7.
Aboard the Dragon spacecraft is more than 2,900 kilograms of cargo and scientific experiments. The spacecraft also carries the Nanoracks Bishop Airlock within its unpressurised truck. The new airlock is a commercial platform designed to support a range of applications including deploying CubeSats, housing small external payloads, jettisoning trash, and recovering external station hardware.
Once docking is complete, the CRS-21 cargo Dragon is expected to remain aboard the space station for approximately 30 days. It will then undock and return to Earth with over 2,300 kilograms of return cargo.
The upgraded cargo Dragon spacecraft is a variant of the SpaceX Crew Dragon, which just recently was launched on its first operational mission. The new cargo spacecraft offers a significant increase in performance over its predecessor including a 20 percent increase in volume and double the amount of powered locker cargo capacity. It also requires less refurbishment between flights, is capable of autonomously docking, can be flown for five flights, two more than the previous cargo Dragon, and remain docked to the station for twice as long.
In addition to CRS-21 being the first mission to be launched aboard the upgraded cargo Dragon spacecraft, it was also the first NASA mission to utilise a Falcon 9 first stage that had supported more than one previous flight. The booster had previously supported three other missions including the first crewed flight of the Crew Dragon, which carried NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken. Following successful first stage separation, the booster was recovered for a fourth time touching down on the Of Course I Still Love You droneship stationed in the Atlantic.