Following a 13-month hiatus in International Space Station (ISS) operations, SpaceX—the Hawthorne, Calif.-based launch services organization, headed by entrepreneur Elon Musk—secured its latest triumph Easter Sunday morning with the successful rendezvous, capture, and berthing of the snub-nosed Dragon spacecraft at the expansive orbital outpost. Expedition 39 Commander Koichi Wakata, assisted by Flight Engineers Rick Mastracchio and Steve Swanson, grappled the cargo vessel with the station’s 57.7-foot-long (17.4-meter) Canadarm2 robotic arm precisely on time at 7:14 a.m. EDT and installed it onto the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the Harmony node. Completion of the two-stage capture and berthing operation was confirmed by NASA at 10:06 a.m. EDT. Dragon, which is flying the third of 12 dedicated missions under SpaceX’s $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA, will remain attached to the ISS for about a month as its myriad payloads are unloaded. Today’s success also comes hard on the heels of SpaceX’s electrifying announcement of success in its effort to soft-land the first stage of the Falcon 9 v1.1 launch vehicle on water, by means of experimental landing legs.
The CRS-3 mission launched, against many odds, on Good Friday, four days later than originally planned due to a helium leak in the first stage of the Falcon 9. In spite of the risk of thunderstorms, thick clouds, and precipitation across the Cape Canaveral area, SpaceX “threaded the needle” through the inclement weather and accomplished an “instantaneous” liftoff at 3:25:22 p.m. EDT, successfully delivering Dragon on its long-awaited mission to deliver equipment and supplies to the space station. Within minutes of achieving orbit, SpaceX noted that the spacecraft had separated from the second stage of the Falcon and was in the process of deploying its electricity-generating solar arrays and communications and navigation appendages, preparatory to a berthing about 38 hours after liftoff.
Overnight Saturday, it was reported by SpaceX that Dragon conducted a series of thruster “burns” to bring itself closer to the space station, along the so-called “R-Bar” (or “Earth Radius Vector”), an imaginary line running from the center of Earth toward the ISS. By approaching its quarry from “below,” Dragon took advantage of natural gravitational forces to brake its final approach and limit the need for additional thruster burns. Similar R-Bar rendezvous profiles have been adopted since the Shuttle-Mir era in the 1990s.
To accomplish today’s capture and berthing at the Harmony node, Wakata, Mastracchio, and Swanson rose early, ate a quick Easter breakfast, and began setting up their laptops and other equipment in the space station’s multi-windowed cupola, which would afford them a panoramic view of the events to come. A carefully orchestrated symphony of maneuvers brought the cargo craft to a “Hold Point” about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from the space station, where it passed a “Go/No-Go” poll to proceed. Further polls and holds were made at distances of 3,700 feet (1,130 meters) and 820 feet (250 meters), with the latter “Hold Point” being reached at 5:14 a.m. EDT, as both vehicles flew high above southern Africa.
Less than 20 minutes later, Dragon resumed its approach, keeping rigidly to the R-Bar path and creeping toward the ISS at a steady, slowpoke pace of less than 3 inches (7.6 cm) per second. Inside the cupola, Wakata, clad in a dark blue shirt, monitored the spacecraft’s approach via binoculars, as Mastracchio, in a green shirt, provided a running commentary of Dragon’s orientation for Capcom Jack Fischer in the Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas. The pair were quickly joined by a jubilant, red-shirted Swanson. Overseeing the berthing operation in Mission Control today was Flight Director Matt Abbott.
Passing within the so-called “Keep Out Sphere” (KOS)—a collision-avoidance exclusion zone, extending 650 feet (200 meters) around the ISS—Dragon’s rate of closure had by now slowed to a little under 2 inches (5 cm) per second. Just before 6:15 a.m. EDT, watched by the Expedition 39 crew and anxious Mission Control teams in Houston and Hawthorne, the spacecraft reached its next-to-last “Hold Point” at 100 feet (30 meters), where SpaceX controllers verified good navigational data and the polling of all stations began. By this point, the two spacecraft were flying through orbital darkness, high above Chile.
Shortly afterward, at about 6:50 a.m. EDT, clearance was given to advance to the 30 feet (10 meter) “Capture Point,” which would position Dragon within range of Canadarm2’s Latching End Effector (LEE). “Step away from the chocolate,” the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) tweeted its Easter-egg-munching followers, “and take a short break to watch #Canadarm2 catch #Dragon!” The arm is part of Canada’s contribution to the ISS and builds upon the heritage of the original “Canadarm,” the shuttle’s Remote Manipulator System (RMS), which supported dozens of missions and a wide variety of construction, retrieval, deployment, and repair tasks from 1981 until 2011. It was also noted that today’s capture of CRS-3 marked the 10th capture of a cargo craft by Canadarm2, which was installed aboard the space station in April 2001. Since September 2009, the arm has supported the capture and berthing of four H-II Transfer Vehicles (HTVs) on behalf of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), four Dragons—including the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Demo in May 2012 and three dedicated CRS missions—and two Cygnus resupply ships for Orbital Sciences Corp.
Later, CSA tweeted its own self-confessed “Bad Space Joke” of the day by encouraging Dragon to draw closer, telling it that “We’re waiting for you with open arm!” Adding to the humor, upcoming Expedition 40/41 resident Alexander Gerst of Germany—who will launch aboard Soyuz TMA-13M for his six-month “Blue Dot” mission on 28 May—also tweeted that half of his clothes, food, toothpaste, and running shoes were also aboard Dragon. His future crewmate, NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman, also later tweeted thanks to Wakata for bringing his food supply safely to the space station.
By 6:58 a.m. EDT, the extended Canadarm2 was within the 30 feet (10 meter) range of Dragon, and, following earlier niggling UHF communications dropouts, Jack Fischer radioed Wakata at 7:02 a.m. EDT with a “Go for Capture.” The official time at which Canadarm2’s LEE grappled the cargo craft was 7:14 a.m. EDT, a little under 40 hours since launch, as Dragon and the ISS flew high above Egypt’s River Nile. In announcing the successful capture, Wakata thanked both the NASA and SpaceX teams for their support and described Dragon and Canadarm2 as having been very stable during the final proximity operations. Jack Fischer replied that Wakata’s performance today demonstrated that his nickname of “The Man” was indeed an apt one.
Over the following 2.5 hours, the crew and Mission Control worked to maneuver Dragon toward its eventual berthing point on the nadir interface of the Harmony node. With astronaut Randy Bresnik now on the Capcom’s console, it was for him to convey the welcome news of Expedition 39’s Easter Sunday visitor: “The Easter Dragon,” he told the crew, “is knocking at the door.” The physical berthing took place in two parts, with Mastracchio overseeing first-stage capture, in which hooks from Harmony’s nadir Common Berthing Mechanism (CBM) extended and grabbed Dragon to pull their respective CBMs into contact. This was then followed by second-stage capture, in which a series of 16 bolts were driven to rigidize the two vehicles in a tight, mechanized embrace. Completion of second-stage capture was confirmed by NASA at 10:06 a.m. EDT as the spacecraft flew high above Brazil. Following berthing, the crew will be given a “Go” to pressurize the vestibule leading from the Harmony nadir hatch into Dragon and will then be able to access the cargo craft, which has delivered about 3,500 pounds (1,590 kg) of equipment, food, water, and supplies to the space station.
Today’s successful capture caps a remarkable two days for SpaceX, which saw its first Dragon launch atop the new Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket on Good Friday. As part of ongoing efforts to eventually make its rockets fully reusable, and capable of flying themselves back to touch down at their launch sites, it was hoped that this mission would deploy four fold-out carbon-fiber/aluminum honeycomb landing legs on its first stage to execute a “soft” splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. As pointed out in AmericaSpace’s CRS-3 preview article, SpaceX have gone to great lengths to stress that the landing legs are experimental and anticipated only a 40-percent likelihood of success in the early stages.
In the minutes after launch, it was feared that rough seas in the Atlantic and wave heights in the range of 13-20 feet (4-6 meters) might ruin the soft splashdown. However, against many odds, it appears that a successful deployment of the landing legs and a safe, vertical splashdown was accomplished. Significantly, the excessive and uncontrollable roll motions which foiled the first soft-splashdown attempt during the Falcon 9 v1.1’s maiden voyage in September 2013 were notably absent on Friday, with recorded roll rates close to zero. “Data upload from tracking plane shows first-stage landing in Atlantic was good,” exulted Elon Musk in a Friday evening tweet. “Flight computers continued transmitting for 8 seconds after reaching the water. Stopped when booster went horizontal. Several boats en-route through heavy seas … ”
Following its berthing at the ISS, Dragon will shortly be unloaded of its enormous payload of supplies, which is considerably larger than its predecessors, thanks to the enhanced lift capacity of the upgraded Falcon 9 v1.1. “Dragon got a few upgrades since its last trip to station,” explained SpaceX on its Facebook page. “To support the more critical science payloads for the ISS, the spacecraft … has nearly quadrupled its previous powered cargo capability. Dragon will carry additional freezers in its pressurized section and, for the first time ever, powered cargo inside its unpressurized Trunk … The spacecraft is also sporting redesigned cargo racks to accommodate the additional payloads.”
One of the freezers is a powered General Laboratory Active Cryogenic ISS Experiment Refrigerator (GLACIER), which provides for the transportation and preservation of biological and other samples at temperatures between -160 degrees Celsius (-301 degrees Fahrenheit) and 4 degrees Celsius (39 degrees Fahrenheit). Dragon will also carry a pair of Microgravity Experiment Research Locker Incubators (MERLINs), both of which will supply a refrigerator/incubator at temperatures from -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit) to 48.5 degrees Celsius (119 degrees Fahrenheit).
Powered cargoes inside the spacecraft’s unpressurized Trunk include the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS) to demonstrate high-bandwidth space-to-ground laser communications and the High-Definition Earth Viewing (HDEV) quartet of commercial HD video cameras to film Earth from multiple angles. Both of these payloads will be robotically installed onto the exterior of the ISS. Also aboard the vehicle will be a new Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) space suit to replace the unit which malfunctioned and allowed water seepage into the helmet area during Luca Parmitano’s ill-fated EVA-23 in July 2013. The problematic suit will be returned to Earth aboard Dragon. Other payloads include the long-awaited legs for Robonaut-2.
Want to keep up-to-date with all things space? Be sure to “Like” AmericaSpace on Facebook and follow us on Twitter: @AmericaSpace
We’ve just witnessed the end of the competition. Had they gone to land instead of sea it would likely have landed and been fully recovered. The competition isn’t even in competition for reusability. This is big news.
Now we just need those that say Dragon isn’t fulfilling it’s $1.6b contract to chime in.
When I listened to the launch the first stage ended at 3 Min T + Launch and was at Altitude 103 KM and down range 103 KM…So where do they land the first stage…Do they turn it around and fly it back to the launch area or land it down range and truck it back the launch pad?
“So where do they land the first stage”
I see it is time for me to play “skunk at the garden party” again.
As you correctly point out, the “landing site” was over 100 Kilometers out in the ocean. The current plan is to fly the retrograde maneuver I mentioned before.
The problem is that will require far more extra fuel, the weight of which will have to be subtracted from any payload.
It is dubious that the Falcon 9 at that point would have any remaining positive payload margin (that is the ability t0 place any payload in orbit).
As for the competition being over…How do we know the condition of the first stage and what is required for a recertification to flight status of the engines and structure without getting it back and doing an in depth analysis on the whole thing…I mean what if they land the first back on the ground only to discover that after it cools off…It completely collapses under it own weight or all of the engines are badly damaged etc.etc. The point is they won’t know the true nature of how scuccessful the reuse plan until they get a stage to inspect for reuse..Right? This was a similar issue with the Shuttle …No?
Here is a link to another article on the subject:
Note several things:
(1) “Boats stationed near the first stage’s landing site were heading for the expected splashdown point late Friday, according to Musk, but rough seas were expected to make it difficult to locate and retrieve the rocket.”
The expected “splashdown point” was not near “the first stage’s landing site”. This brings in to question how well the actual engine firings went.
(2) “Using Twitter to share the news, Musk said the aircraft received data for 8 seconds after the rocket reached the water, an indication the first stage at least survived the landing long enough to continue powering its transmitter.”
The only current proof that the soft landing took place is that telemetry continued for 8 seconds after impact with the water. But in the comments section a poster named Timothy Brummer (who appears to be a big SpaceX supporter) gives some interesting information: “In the past I helped launch Titan IIIB rockets from VAFB, and some of the first stages would splash down into the Pacific off San Diego intact and float. A Navy destroyer would have to go out and sink them because they were a hazard to shipping.”
In other words the 8 seconds of telemetry in no way guarantees that the desired soft landing took place.
When and if the first stage is recovered all the rest of your questions are extremely pertinent.
Ken is “spiking the football” on his own one yard line.
Could this by why SpaceX is looking to launch from Texas ..And then land in Florida rather than do the fuel consuming, retrograde turnaround or could they just do one orbit?
Pushing the first stage to a complete orbit would be even more fuel consuming.
Had not heard that one about launching from Texas, but yes it could (and thanks for the information).
At least two possible problems with that scenario (at first look):
(1) The need for an (as yet undemonstrated) precision in aligning the vehicle for landing. The fact that the current first stage appears to have splashed down a good distance from the intended landing area is not an encouraging sign.
The Delta Clipper SSTO was to solve this problem by the fact that it was a bi-conic shape (a type of lifting body) and could steer itself through the atmosphere. Unless SpaceX has some (as yet undisclosed) way to give the first stage a significant lift to drag ratio that option is not open to SpaceX. If the landing site needs to be 10’s of miles in radius, the good citizens of Florida are likely to get nervous.
(2) The launch trajectory to take the vehicle to any orbit other than a near zero inclination and one that would allow it to land in Florida would take it over the Gulf of Mexico, which is heavily populated with expensive off shore oil rigs.
Florida has a keep out corridor for rigs that allow for launch from there, but that is because the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station beat the oil companies to it. The oil companies beat SpaceX to the Gulf.
What really bothers me about all this is the sort of Ad Hoc attitude that seems to be permeating the SpaceX push for reusability.
Jim Hillhouse recently talked about how they started out with parachutes and when they realized were those to heavy they went to fly back complete with retrograde maneuver. If they have now realized that the retrograde maneuver will not work, they move to “well let’s fly over the Gulf”.
They obviously have good engineers working for them or else they would not be making the Falcon 9 work at all. Those engineers have got to have known (or at least strongly suspected) the problems with parachutes or fly back, but it appears nobody listens to them (at least if they tell management something management does not want to hear).
How about they land on a Barge in the ocean or an oil platform and then just ship back to the Cape or Texas launch point? The video on SpaceX website shows a pretty good amount of altitude control …but with the velocities involved hitting that (landing barge) target would be tough to do …Right?
Very tough to do and remember they apparently did not come close to the target landing zone on this flight.
Also they had rough seas. Try to picture landing something as tall/thin as a Falcon 9 first stage on a barge rolling in the waves.
That’s why the test is two fold. Getting from launch to hover. Getting from hover to landing. They’ve done both on separate vehicles. They just have to do both with a single vehicle. You really think that isn’t going to happen?
data upload from SpaceX’s tracking plane shows the first stage landing in Atlantic was good!
It hovered before landing. It continued to send data 8 seconds after it was in the water.
Putting down on land will probably require a different launch location. However, they did what has never been done before and goes a long way to showing reusability. They still have more to prove. Continue to bet against them. I’m not.
I don’t SpaceX have proven anything yet …But I very much want them to succeed… Do you think a Barge Landing is what they are planning? I don’t understand that if they didn’t know where to land the first stage(s) why agree to the 20 year lease at Cape Kennedy? I am hoping there is another plan that hasn’t been mentioned yet…How does SpaceX resolve the landing at the Launch Base if as everyone has said. ” There is not enough fuel left over for landing back at launch point “…Also what if the condition of the stage is NOT reuseable do we know that yet? SpaceX says he needs to get 1000 reuses out of the stages…Just how doable is that?
You might be right that SpaceX is planning on landing the Falcon flyback stage elsewhere rather than KSC.
Still, landing on a barge, even one the size of an Nimitz class flattop, will, as any naval aviator will tell you, no trivial task.
This will be interesting, given how important reusing the Falcon first stage is to the economics of SpaceX’s whole endeavor.
“data upload from SpaceX’s tracking plane shows the first stage landing in Atlantic was good!”
Actually the full quote from the article was:
““Data upload from tracking plane shows first-stage landing in Atlantic was good,” exulted Elon Musk in a Friday evening tweet. “Flight computers continued transmitting for 8 seconds after reaching the water. Stopped when booster went horizontal. Several boats en-route through heavy seas … ””
So it was a quote from Musk saying the landing was good (whatever that may mean – there is no reference to hovering) based on the fact that telemetry from the stage continued for 8 seconds after impact with the water.
That the 8 seconds of telemetry does not necessarily mean that the landing was a controlled/soft landing was discussed by a post dated April 21, 2014 at 11:43 am, so there is no need to repeat the facts again.
Since we are already at the point where you are simply repeating your original assertions, let’s do this:
For your next post do not wait for a reply, just go back and re-read the appropriate post already addressing the statement you are repeating.
It will save bandwidth.
Ben, Ken and Joe,
What is your opinion as to why LM X-33 was cancelled…I had thought that it was because the LOX tank had to be Composite rather than Aluminum because of weight. After it was discovered that while the Composite tank failed it was actually heavier than the Aluminum tank…Then they said the production cost of the Aluminum tank was much higher then the Composite…Something is amiss here… This Demo prototype made major breakthroughs in thermal shielding and engine design..both of which I do not think has made it into the public sector…
There is nothing to indicate that the Falcon 9’s first stage hovered. Had it done so, Elon would have shouted…ok, tweeted, that from the highest mountain top. In fact, we don’t even know if the first stage engines even fired.
Instead, all we know from news reports is that the first stage managed a controlled vertical water impact. For SpaceX, that is progress. In the past, the first stage parachute would shred soon after deployment.
Which is why they are no longer using parachutes on the first stage. This is called learning.
You’re right about hovering. It would be nice if they’d announce the terminal velocity. The fact is they are hovering F9s but perhaps not this one.
I still maintain those 8 seconds are highly significant. I don’t believe we’d have seen any of that if we hit the water hard. This isn’t a black box we’re talking about.
The SSTO program began in the George H. W. Bush Administration under the auspices of the(long defunct) Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO). The originator of the concept was the late Max Hunter (still legendary to engineers with an interest in rocket design). In this period there three competing designs (all Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing – VTVL. The competition was eventually won by the (long defunct) McDonnell Douglas Space Systems division with the Delta Clipper design that led to the DC-X test vehicle.
When the Clinton Administration came into office, they shut down SDIO but transferred the SSTO program to NASA control as the X-33. That was when the Lockheed Skunk Works got into the area with what they then called the Aero-Ballistic Rocket. It was this basic design that eventually won the competition as the Venture Star.
It was Hunter’s opinion that the Venture Star was over designed. That it put to many developments in the critical path to SSTO that did not need to be there. The McDonnell Douglas VTVL X-33 competitor (that would have been the DC-Y in the SDIO program), for instance, used a composite tank but did not need the tri-nodal tank design required by the Venture Star.
Hunter feared that at least one of these technical developments would run into difficulty and (in a very limited budget program) get the program cancelled, setting back any SSTO work for years (if not decades). That is exactly what happened.
You are correct that the X-33 made great strides in both thermal protection and propulsion, but the composite tri-nodal thank ran into problems that led to the cancellation of the program.
Was SSTO really practical, or is it now? I do not really know. The concept is still controversial and the X-33 program was never carried through to find out.
This post is already too long. If you want more detail there is a book “Half Way to Anywhere” by Harry Stine (still available on Amazon, I checked) that details the whole history of the concept (I promise I get no kickbacks).
I remember reading recently that the Composite tank issues were solved or that new manufacturing process for the Composite Tank was thought to be established…And considering the SpaceX accomplishments would it be conceivable for Lockheed Martin bring the the X-33 back to life or has it already in the form of the X-37 secret spaceplane?
Have not heard that the specific problems with the tri-nodal composite tank had been solved, but that would not be surprising. As noted the problem was not that the issue was unresolvable, but that it could not be resolved under the time and budget constrains placed on the X-33 program.
There does not appear to be a correlation between the Venture Star and the X-37 and it is (at least in my opinion) unlikely that Lockheed would try to restart work on the Venture Star under current circumstances. The general opinion of the people who would have to make those kinds of budget decisions seems to be that the failure to produce the tank and the resulting cancellation of the X-33 program is proof that SSTO doesn’t work.
All you guys trying to solve how to land a Falcon 9 seem to be forgetting one thing: the rotation of the Earth.
The trick isn’t how to bring the rocket back to Florida, the trick is how to bring Florida back to the rocket. A good burn at the apex of the flight would bring the rocket right back over Canaveral.
Test flights of the Falcon 9R test vehicle over New Mexico will be interesting…
So is the trajectory occuring at with the earth’s rotation …so that the booster is ahead of the location from which it launched…So all that needs to happen is to slow the craft in space long enough to wait for the Cape to catch up with the Booster and then just decend?
It’s my understanding that is the concept. Let the planet do the work…
The Earth rotates towards the east and a rocket picks up that velocity if it launches to the east. That starting velocity is an advantage in reaching orbit and that is why rockets attempting to reach orbit launch to the east. That has nothing to do with performing a retrograde maneuver.
The net velocity imparted to the rocket by its engines is in addition to that and that considerable Delta V (between the rocket and Florida)is what must be overcome to return the stage to Florida. The Earth’s rotation is already taken into account in that assessment.
This line of conversation does not change anything about whether or not a retrograde maneuver is practical. It is not.
From my own background–I have an Masters in Orbital Mechanics–I don’t see how SpaceX employs a fly-back booster able to return to KSC and do so without wiping-out the mass-fraction of the launcher. This is either excellent marketing or the company has someone far brighter and more capable than me (not hard to do), or the much more experienced people I’ve talked to (much harder to do), who has created a LEO equivalent of a magic trick.
I did a post last year suggesting the possibility of helicopter recovery during the rocket hover at sea level. After sifting through the comments, some of which were out there even farther than normal, the best objection was the lack of large enough choppers to carry the stage home. If that problem could be addressed, it seems possible that a first stage could be returned to the cape within an hour or two of launch.
This would be the equivalent of a magic trick in practical terms. In reality though, boostback RTLS seems mass prohibitive.
Snatching an F9 first stage out of the air by somehow grappling it with a helicopter as it hovers on rockets would not be the equivalent of a magic trick, it would be a magic trick.
But, it would not be surprising to see SpaceX propose that next.
So if the launch was to the West….This would be much easier to do and because it is to the East ..Both the rotational direction of earth AND the Rocket velocity must be overcome to go the launch point…Right?
If you launched to the west that would mean instead of getting the advantage of the Earths rotational velocity you would have to overcome it. This would make delivering a payload to orbit more difficult and more than offset any advantage for flying a retrograde maneuver to return to launch site.
Joe and Jim,
So it sounds like the best that SpaceX can do is too launch from Texas and land the first stage in the florida everglades or launch from Florida and land on a Barge in the ocean or …can they make it to Bermuda? Or is there some other fuel capability to use just for the booster to get it back to the Cape (solid booster)… I mean could NASA have some type of technology test that was designed for one thing and then cancelled and then could be used for this? SpaceX must have something up “their sleeve” because magic doesn’t exist in rocket science…does it?
“…sounds like the best that SpaceX can do…”
Apparently not, according to Musk. At a press conference today (called so he could announce he is suing ULA over their launch contracts with the DoD – the same issue involved in his attempt to get Congress to ground the Atlas V reported on this website earlier) Musk also said that the F9 first stage soft landed (but offered no corroborative evidence) and said that SpaceX would be landing the F9 first stage back at KSC by the end of the year.
Additionally he said that once that was done the stage could be turned around (and presumably be integrated with a new upper stage and payload) and flown again on the same day.
So there you go.
Ken is “spiking the football” on his own one yard line.
…and the crowd goes wild!!!
Ha! It did hover.
I don’t know, but now there are rumors that the F9 and Dragon both had issues. More on that soon.