CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – History rode a fiery plume to orbit in the early morning hours from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex-40 (SLC-40) Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) gleaming-white Falcon 9 roared to life at 3:44 a.m. lifting the Dragon spacecraft it carried to orbit. This mission is a combined flight, with the objectives of the second and third demonstration flights under NASA’s $1.6 billion Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contract as its objectives.
After some delays and one launch attempt that was aborted just seconds before liftoff, this morning’s launch was a positive first step for the commercial space firm. A point that the company’s founder, Elon Musk, highlighted shortly afterward.
“This mission heralds the dawn of a new era of space exploration, one in which there is a significant commercial space element. It is like the advent of the Internet in the mid-1990s when commercial companies entered what was originally a government endeavor. That move dramatically accelerated the pace of advancement and made the Internet accessible to the mass market. I think we’re at a similar inflection point for space. I hope and I believe that this mission will be historic in marking that turning point towards a rapid advancement in space transportation technology,” Musk said.
SpaceX’s technicians managed to learn the root cause of the problem that aborted Saturday’s launch attempt, worked the issue and had the vehicle ready to go in fairly short order. With the second test flight of the Dragon spacecraft now underway, the importance of this mission cannot be overstated.
“SpaceX has over 1,800 employees in Florida, Texas and California and all of those people have worked really hard on this mission, they are all really excited about this launch,” said SpaceX’s Director of Communications, Kirstin Brost. “This mission is a test flight, its purpose is to get information that we need to ensure that our future missions are really successful – so this flight is incredibly valuable for that reason.”
Video courtesy of NASA Television
A surprise guest appeared at this morning’s launch – the NASA administrator Charles Bolden. Perhaps in an effort to avoid speaking with the media if a problem arose, Bolden addressed the media after the Dragon was safely in orbit.
The Falcon 9 had “secret” passengers on board. The ashes of Mercury 7 astronaut Gordon Cooper and James “Scotty” Doohan from the highly-popular Star Trek series. These two high-profile passengers joined 306 other paying customers on this historic flight. Managed by Celestis, a company that specializes in this particular service. The ashes will remain in orbit for about a year at which time the second stage, which carries the remains, will burn up upon reentering Earth’s atmosphere.
If all goes according to how it is planned, the Dragon spacecraft will separate from the Falcon 9 rocket and enter the history books as the first privately-owned spacecraft to rendezvous and potentially be berthed to the International Space Station (ISS). The Dragon will be grappled by the crew on the ISS who will then berth the cargo vessel to the earth-facing side of the space station’s Harmony module.
This is actually the third flight of the private space firm which launched the first and second flights in June and December of 2010. The latter mission was the first flight of the Dragon which was itself a historic mission. The Dragon became the first commercial spacecraft to orbit the Earth (twice) and return safely to the Earth. It was retrieved off the Coast of California and later made a return visit to Cape Canaveral.
SpaceX asked for and received approval to combine the second and third demonstration flights of the COTS contract into a single mission. If any of the objectives under these two demo flights are not met, then SpaceX will fly a third demonstration flight to carry out the unmet requirements.
During this mission there are a great many “firsts” that the Dragon must accomplish both in terms of survival as well as accomplishing the overarching goals of the demonstration flight. It must deploy its solar arrays, then conduct a number of engine burns to put it in the correct trajectory to reach the space station. It will have its Absolute GPS (AGPS) system tested out, demonstrate its free-drift capabilities and also have its abort system verified. These procedures will mark the Dragon’s first two days on orbit.
Day three will involve a maneuver allowing the spacecraft to fly “under” the orbiting laboratory. More tests will mark the Dragon’s third day in space with the communications system, Relative GPS (RGPS). The Expedition 31 crew will monitor the spacecraft as it passes under the station and direct the spacecraft to turn on a strobe light. These activities and others will set the stage for the following days activities.
Day four will see a series of steps leading to the spacecraft getting closer to the ISS. The crew will begin giving Dragon commands directing it in different directions and confirming that they have good control of the spacecraft. Once Dragon gets within 32 feet (10 meters) from the space station – Mission Control in Houston, Texas will give the crew a “go” to capture Dragon using the station’s Canadarm 2.
The next steps from there involve properly berthing the cargo vessel to the ISS and ensuring that seals are properly made before opening the hatch. If all that happens? Dragon is slated to spend a little over two weeks berthed to the ISS. Eventually the reverse will take place, the spacecraft will be buttoned up, grappled using the Canadarm 2 and un-berthed from the space station and it will be released. About four hours after it has left the ISS it will conduct a de-orbit burn and return to Earth. This is in every way imaginable a test flight and nothing described about might happen – or everything.
This morning’s launch marked the second attempt by SpaceX’s launch team. The first was aborted by the flight computer due to higher-than-normal engine pressure in engine number five (the Falcon 9 sports nine Merlin engines in its first stage and a single Merlin engine in its second stage.
If SpaceX accomplishes the numerous requirements under the second and third demonstration flights then the company will be ready to begin the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) part of the COTS contract.
“It’s an incredibly difficult mission, but we feel that we did everything that we can do on the ground to ensure mission success, tonight was the time to go and launch the vehicle and to learn from that experience,” Brost said. When asked if Elon Musk, the company’s founder would be watching the launch from, Brost responded by saying that Musk would be watching the launch from SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif.
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