As it looks to successfully complete the first of at least 12 regularly scheduled missions to the International Space Station, SpaceX's Dragon cargo capsule will leave the ISS tomorrow morning and head back to Earth, with NASA broadcasting the return live.
Commercially manufactured, Dragon became the first such craft to link up with the ISS, during a test mission in late May when flight engineer Donald Pettit used the ISS's robot arm to pluck the vessel out of "the sky." The craft successfully splashed down on May 31 and returned to the station on October 10 for another robot grab. It will be laden with nearly 1,700 pounds of experiment samples and hardware when it heads home Sunday.
NASA's goal has been to replace the cargo delivery capability that was lost with the retirement of the space shuttle program. The agency has a $1.6 billion contract with SpaceX for the cargo missions, in addition to a similar, $1.9 billion cargo deal with Orbital Sciences. On top of that, NASA has handed out $900 million in contracts to three companies -- SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada -- to develop crafts to carry astronauts to and from the ISS.
On Thursday, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft docked with the ISS, where its three-man crew will spend about 145 days. NASA TV's live coverage of the Dragon capsule's undocking and return to Earth starts at 7 a.m. ET Sunday. And if the footage is anything like that of the Soyuz craft's linkup (embedded below), space fans (and perhaps even James Bond aficionados) may well want to get up early to tune in.