SpaceX’s Falcon 9 successfully roared into the darkened Cape Canaveral skies this evening, delivering the first dedicated Dragon cargo craft under a $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA into its preliminary orbit. Liftoff of the Falcon 9 – which was carrying its third overall Dragon, following a stand-alone demo flight in December 2010 and the first test mission to the International Space Station in May of this year – occurred on time at 8:35 pm EDT. At the time of writing, Dragon was undergoing early checkout of its systems, ahead of a rendezvous and berthing at the station early on Wednesday.
The countdown to the much-anticipated mission proceeded exceptionally smoothly, with weather conditions classified as ‘Green’ throughout the process and no technical issues of note being tracked by the SpaceX Mission Control team. Seven minutes ahead of launch, Dragon was transferred to its internal power supply, followed, two minutes later, by the Falcon. As personnel within the SpaceX control room watched pensively – none more so, it seemed, than CEO Elon Musk himself – the final ‘Go’ for launch was received at 8:33 pm. All of the Falcon’s propellant tanks were verified to be at their correct flight pressures by the T-30-second mark and the 227-foot-tall rocket roared perfectly into the darkened Florida sky at 8:35. Ascent appeared entirely nominal, with the nine Merlin-1C engines of the first stage producing a combined 1.1 million pounds of thrust for the inaugural minutes of the climb to orbit.
First-stage shutdown and jettison was followed, at 8:39 pm, by the ignition of the single Merlin-1C on the second stage, which continued the boost phase for a further six minutes. By 8:45 pm, the Falcon had inserted the Dragon into a successful preliminary orbit of 122 x 203 miles. Two minutes later, the craft separated from the Falcon 9 and at 8:51 pm its twin solar arrays unfurled without apparent incident. As this article was completed, the spacecraft is undergoing preparations for its two-day rendezvous profile to arrive at the International Space Station early on Wednesday. After docking, Dragon is expected to remain until 28 October.
“We are right where we need to be at this stage in the mission,” Musk said in a SpaceX statement after the launch. “We still have a lot of work to do, of course, as we guide Dragon’s approach to the space station, but the launch was an unqualified success.”
Dragon’s next human contact will come from the three-person crew of Expedition 33, commanded by NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, who watched the launch via live video feed, all the way through to the deployment of Dragon’s solar arrays. Williams sent her crew’s congratulations to the SpaceX team in the first few minutes after orbital insertion.
The last few years have been a rollercoaster of a success story for SpaceX.
Nineteen weeks ago, the world stood enthralled as Elon Musk’s startup company, headquartered in Hawthorne, California, launched and executed with near-pinpoint precision the first visit of Dragon to the station. PayPal entrepreneur Musk once famously declared that he sought to tackle three “important problems that would most affect the future of humanity”, namely the internet, clean energy and space exploration. True to his word, he has turned SpaceX into a remarkable triumph, whose market value leapt from $1.3 billion in February 2012 to $2.4 billion by the end of May, following Dragon’s mission. The man who seems able to transform water into wine in space already speaks confidently of having Commercial Crew capability by 2015 and planting boots on Mars within the next two decades. Judging from Sunday’s spectacular night launch, it is difficult to disagree or doubt his resolve.
SpaceX has become something of a golden child in recent months, not simply through what it professes to do, but because it has set about reinforcing its words with deeds and accomplishments. By his own admission, Musk named his cargo craft ‘Dragon’ in honour of Peter, Paul and Mary’s 1963 song ‘Puff, the Magic Dragon’, in response to critics who lambasted his company’s outlandish space goals as unattainable and impossible. Yet ‘unattainable’ and ‘impossible’ can be readily applied to any endeavour, until it is attained or made possible, and the vigour with which SpaceX has driven Dragon from the draughtman’s board to low-Earth orbit to the waters of the Pacific Ocean – and is now in the process of doing the same thing again – seems equally as remarkable as the mission itself.
Sunday’s dazzling liftoff from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station comes a little more than a decade after Musk founded SpaceX in June 2002. Dragon was submitted to NASA in the spring of 2006 as part of the agency’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) initiative and was selected, along with Kistler Aerospace, to perform three demo flights in 2008-10. Although Kistler failed to meet its obligations and its contract was later terminated, Musk’s company moved from strength to strength and in December 2008 received the coveted $1.6 billion CRS contract from NASA. Under the provisions of this deal, SpaceX will stage a dozen Dragon missions by 2015 and haul a total of 44,000 pounds of cargo and supplies to the space station.
In the meantime, the company pressed on with a successful test of the Falcon 9 rocket in June 2010, followed, six months later, by the maiden demo of Dragon itself, which completed two orbits of the Earth in a textbook three-hour flight. Last December, NASA approved SpaceX’s request to combine the final two missions of its demonstration trio into one mission (known as ‘COTS-2+’) which unfolded with near-perfection from 22-31 May of this year. Sunday’s Falcon 9 arrived at its launch pad in August and moved crisply through a ‘wet’ countdown demonstration test later that month and a static test firing of the nine Merlin-1C engines on its first stage on Sept. 29.
Although the Falcon 9 has not accomplished enough missions for detailed reliability analyses to be calculated, Elon Musk has emphasised that the simplicity of its design and systems – including a capability to run the engines up to full power, whilst still secured to the pad, to ensure that all systems are operating properly before launch – is a key factor in its favour. This was clearly demonstrated in June 2010, when the Falcon’s first launch attempt was scrubbed after first-stage ignition and a ‘fail-safe’ abort was commanded. Ground personnel were able to recycle the rocket for a successful second launch attempt, later that very same day.
“Tonight, I want to take this opportunity to congratulate our partners at SpaceX on tonight’s launch,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.
The pace at which SpaceX produces these vehicles is impressive: two years ago, Musk’s company reportedly possessed the capability to churn out Falcons and Dragons every three months, with an expectation to double that rate by 2012. The successful flight of an operational Dragon in December 2010 and the spectacular visit to the International Space Station in May of this year certainly contributed in no small measure to SpaceX being one of three companies recently awarded contracts under NASA’s Commercial Crew integrated Capability (CCiCap). Sunday’s launch is carrying around 1,000 pounds of equipment and supplies to the Expedition 33 crew – currently at its three-person level of Commander Sunita Williams and Flight Engineers Yuri Malenchenko and Aki Hoshide – and after a month-long stay will return an estimated 730 pounds of scientific materials and 500 pounds of hardware back to Earth. Although Dragon’s downmass limit is a far cry from the enormous capacity of the Shuttle, it is presently the only operational unpiloted cargo vehicle with the ability to return large quantities of materials to Earth.
Although the arrival and berthing of Dragon at the station – to be effected using the Canadarm2 robotic arm, controlled from workstations in the Cupola – will be a highlight of the next few days, the Falcon 9 will also carry a ‘piggyback’ passenger: a prototype second-generation Orbcomm communications satellite. This 330-pound payload was to be deployed from the Falcon’s second stage into a 200 x 470-nautical-mile insertion orbit, inclined 52 degrees to the equator. SpaceX is currently under a $46.6 million contract to launch a total of 18 second-generation Orbcomms by late 2014.
Meanwhile, the Dragon cargo missions to the International Space Station are expected to intensify, with the second such flight tentatively planned for January 2013, followed by three per annum thereafter until 2015. In addition to its primary cargo for the station crew, the ship carries 23 experiments in the physical, chemical and biological sciences, which have been developed from conception through to realisation by more than 7,000 students. As part of NASA’s Student Spaceflight Experiment Program (SSEP), 12 of the experiments were delivered to the station on the first Dragon docking mission in May 2012, but were not completed and are thus receiving a second flight opportunity. The other 11 experiments are wholly new.
“SSEP offers a unique flight opportunity that allows students to experience both the excitement and the challenges inherent in conducting research in a microgravity environment,” said Roosevelt Johnson, NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Education at the agency’s Washington, DC, headquarters. “It really is STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] in action, using the International Space Station, which has America’s only orbiting National Laboratory, to host these students’ science experiments.” More than a hundred student investigators, their teachers and family members were expected to be at the Cape to watch the Dragon launch.
“The Dragon spacecraft has been placed into a picture-perfect orbit,” SpaceX’s President Gwynne Shotwell during a press conference held after the launch. “Dragon went exactly where we wanted it to go!”