On Friday, April 18, SpaceX successfully sent their Falcon-9 rocket off on a fiery ascent from Cape Canaveral Space Launch Complex-40 to deliver their Dragon spacecraft with 4,600 pounds of supplies and some 150 science experiments for the crew onboard the International Space Station, and AmericaSpace was there to capture it all.
The mission, CRS-3, is the third for the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company under a $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract, signed between NASA and SpaceX in December 2008, in which the company is required to conduct 12 dedicated Dragon missions by 2016 and haul a total of 44,000 pounds (20,000 kg) of equipment and supplies to the ISS. Dragon’s payloads include investigations into efficient plant growth in space, human immune system function in microgravity, Earth observation, a demonstration of laser optics communication, and even legs for NASA’s Robonaut, who was delivered to the ISS on the Space Shuttle Discovery with the STS-133 mission.
“SpaceX is delivering important research experiments and cargo to the space station,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations. “The diversity and number of new experiments is phenomenal. The investigations aboard Dragon will help us improve our understanding of how humans adapt to living in space for long periods of time and help us develop technologies that will enable deep space exploration.”
The launch also gave SpaceX an opportunity to test a new set of four fold-out landing legs, made from carbon-fiber and aluminum honeycomb, which were attached to the base of the rocket in an attempt by the company at developing a reusable first stage rocket. No images have been released yet of the Falcon-9 rocket post-launch, but the company’s CEO Elon Musk has stated that both the rocket’s controlled descent and “soft landing” in the Atlantic Ocean went very well.
“Last known state for rocket boost stage is 360 m/s, Mach 1.1, 8.5 km altitude and roll rate close to zero (very important!),” said Musk via his Twitter account minutes after launch. “Data upload from tracking plane shows first stage landing in Atlantic was good! Flight computers continued transmitting for 8 seconds after reaching the water. Stopped when booster went horizontal. Several boats en-route through heavy seas … ”
What that means is, if Musk’s claim is accurate, SpaceX just became the first company to ever launch a rocket and perform a controlled landing of it. Mother nature may, however, prevent the company from being able to recover it, because the seas off Florida’s Atlantic coast are currently too rough for recovery of a rocket. Even if they cannot recover the rocket used to launch CRS3, Musk hopes to recover one of his rocket’s from an upcoming mission later this year, then re-use that same rocket for a mission in 2015.
As outlined by AmericaSpace writer Ben Evans in our CRS3 post-launch and mission overview, Friday’s launch is indicative of the steady maturity of SpaceX technology, as it strives to develop a fully reusable Falcon 9, whose two stages will ultimately be able to complete their respective boost phases, propulsively return over water, and touch down on extendable landing legs back at the launch site. The system was trialed, with mixed results, during the inaugural flight of the Falcon 9 v1.1, last 29 September, but it experienced an uncontrollable roll during its descent. This caused the final burn of the center Merlin-1D engine to be shortened, due to the centrifuging effect on propellant against the tank walls, which damaged the baffles and allowed debris to enter the engines.
It would seem that SpaceX learned from that experience and the changes made appear to have worked well for the Falcon-9 first stage landing attempt. “I consider it a success in the sense that we were able to control the role rate at 0%,” said Musk during a press conference after the launch. “This time with more powerful thrusters and more nitrogen propellant we were able to null the roll rate.”
Earlier this week, SpaceX officially signed into a property agreement with NASA to lease the historic Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39A for their own use, with the first launch of their mammoth Falcon Heavy rocket scheduled to liftoff from pad 39A in 2015.
Dragon berthing to the ISS is expected to occur early Sunday, about 38 hours after liftoff, and will remain there for at least a month before returning to Earth. The company is expected to launch the Orbcomm-OG2 mission next, as soon as May, but that will likely be pushed back to a later date. Their next Dragon ISS resupply flight, CRS-4, is scheduled to launch NET August 8, and it will likely be delayed too.
BELOW: Photos from our coverage of the SpaceX CRS-3 launch. All images credit Alan Walters and John Studwell for AmericaSpace. Images copyright 2014, all rights reserved, unauthorized use is prohibited.
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