Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Freighter Unloads its Cargo: What's the Big Deal?

Normally, a freighter reaching port and offloading its cargo is a routine matter.

So was this freighter's arrival, in a way. Except
  • It was the first one from Japan to reach this particular destination
  • The freighter was entirely robotic - no crew
  • The destination was 225 miles above Earth
    • The International Space Station (ISS)
"Space Station Crew Welcomes Japan's First Cargo Ship" (September 17, 2009)

"Japan's first-ever space cargo ship arrived at the International Space Station Thursday to end a flawless maiden voyage to the orbiting lab.

"The gleaming space freighter, dubbed the H-2 Transfer Vehicle 1 (HTV-1), approached the space station from below after a week-long chase so astronaut Nicole Stott could pluck it from orbit using the outpost's robotic arm as both spacecraft flew 225 miles (365 km) above western Romania.

"Stott and her crewmates marveled at the new spacecraft as they watched it draw near through station windows. She described the 33-foot (10-meter) freighter looked like a 'very shiny, gold' spaceship...."

This freighter's arrival marks an important milestone for Japan, the ISS, and - I think - for the next century or so of transportation and exploration.

"...The HTV-1's arrival was more than a test flight for Japan. It also demonstrated the capture of free-flying spacecraft using the station's robotic arm, a talent NASA will need to grab commercial cargo ships built by the American companies Space Exploration Technologies and Orbital Sciences Corp...."

No question about it: This is a big day for Japan. And, for all of the 16 nations involved in the construction and operation of the ISS. Getting about five tons of cargo on site, on time, and intact is no small feat. Doing it with a robot more than 200 miles straight up is, even these days, remarkable.

A few years from now, probably not so much.

The HTV-1 is a sophisticated, and practical, cargo ship: today. However, like many earlier space vehicles, it's used once, then discarded. In this case, the HTV-1 will re-enter Earth's atmosphere and burn up over the Pacific Ocean. Most of it, anyway. My guess is that a few pieces will come down - well away from shipping, I trust.

After the Shuttle

The American Space Shuttle fleet will soon be decommissioned, leaving room for other reusable launch vehicles.

Right now, many if not most space transportation is done with throw-away vehicles.

That's good enough for now, but it's no way to run a spaceline. Imagine how long JAL, XJC, UAL, or any other commercial airline would stay in business, if they ditched each aircraft after one flight.

Reusable ground-to-orbit-to-ground vehicles are being tested and on the drawing board: everything from flying gumdrops to elegant spaceplanes. (March 12, 2009, December 22, 2008, December 10, 2008)

Japan's JAXA and the Indian Space Research Organization seem to be working on next-generation launch vehicles, Scaled Composites is developing suborbital passenger craft for Virgin Galactic, and I hope I can be forgiven for being rather pleased that the first purpose-built spaceport on Earth is open for business in the American southwest. (June 20, 2009, November 6, 2008)

Granted, Spaceport America's passenger terminal hasn't been finished and most of the companies that have signed up don't have their fleets ready yet - but it's close.

Exciting times, these.

Related posts: Background:

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