SpaceX's Dragon safely returns cargo to Earth

A refurbished SpaceX Dragon cargo ship successfully reached the international space station earlier this month, marking the first time that a Dragon spacecraft was flown after already having already been used once.

A Dragon spacecraft, which in 2012 became the first commercial spacecraft to carry cargo to the international space station and safely return cargo to Earth, launched from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on Saturday, June 3.

The spacecraft arrived at the international space station on the morning of Monday, June 5, where it was promptly captured and attached to the station by astronauts operating a 57.7-foot-long robotic arm.

Among the cargo transported by the spacecraft was approximately 6,000 pounds of supplies and equipment, which will go toward supporting dozens of science and research investigations within the international space station.

The launch was conducted as part of SpaceX’s 11th Commercial Resupply Services mission, which the corporation performs under contract to NASA. Two similar cargo missions will be carried out later in August and November. The same spacecraft was flown during the fourth iteration of SpaceX’s Commercial Resupply Services mission in 2014.

The Dragon’s reflight is a significant feat for SpaceX, a corporation that has aimed to introduce more cost-effective means of transportation to the world of spaceflight. According to SpaceX, the corporation is currently collaborating with NASA. The Dragon’s first manned test flight is on track to take place in 2018.

Located on each Dragon spacecraft is also DragonLab, a free-flying microgravity laboratory that facilitates research independently of the international space station. The unmanned platform allows for the transportation of experiments, instruments, payloads and sensors between space and Earth. The lab can also contain instruments and sensor testing, as well as space physics and relativity experiments, among other research methods. Due to the fact that the Dragon can stay in orbit for up to two years, the longevity of such experiments can be ensured.

This Dragon spacecraft made use of the same hull and most of the same parts that were used in its 2014 launch. SpaceX did, however, install a new heat shield and parachutes on the spacecraft before its most recent launch.

Other similar supply ships cannot be reused because they cannot survive re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere since they are prone to burning up. Other rocket manufacturers simply dispose of their ships in the ocean.

“It’s starting to feel kinda normal to reuse rockets. Good. That’s how it is for cars & airplanes and how it should be for rockets,” said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in a tweet composed on June 3.

Still, SpaceX has a long way to go before it can begin providing relatively low-cost space transportation for good.

An extensive series of inspections and tests that must be performed on recycled parts can prove costly, despite SpaceX taking every precaution in ensuring that its space crafts are safe and functional.