The Atlas V, performing flawlessly to place the classified NROL-52 payload into its unspecified orbit*, had a rare fifth launch attempt today. This is the first time any Atlas V rocket has had to make this many attempts. Of course, this one was launching from Florida, which is known for its fickle weather. But fifth time was the charm, and the spacecraft is away!
*Spaceflight observers suspect that NROL-52 is a data relay satellite intended for geostationary orbit. If they’re right, it will perform for the National Reconniassance Office a role similar to the civilian TDRS satellites operated by NASA, which allow continuous contact with spacecraft such as the ISS and the Hubble Space Telescope, among others.
A Falcon 9 rocket successfully delivered the CRS-12 Dragon capsule to Earth orbit today, complete with a successful return of the first stage to Cape Canaveral. It carries 3642 lbs. / 1652 kg of cargo in its pressurized compartment, and the 2773.4 lbs. / 1258 kg CREAM experiment package in the unpressurized “trunk” section. (At around 10:27 of the following video, you can start to see CREAM in Dragon’s back section, complete with RMS grapple fixtures that will be used to extract it from the trunk later on.) CREAM, Cosmic-Ray Energetics And Mass, has been flown from stratospheric balloons already; mounting it on the JEM Exposed Facility will give it the opportunity to make far more measurements over a long period of time. Of more immediate practical return are the experiments in the pressurized compartment, including a crystal growth experiment funded partly by the Michael J Fox foundation to study Parkinson’s Disease, a commercial microsatellite to be deployed later, and an experiment that will grow human lung cell tissue scaffolds to be used in pharmaceutical and biological research.
SpaceX successfully completed their first flight for the National Reconnaissance Office, carrying an undisclosed classified payload to orbit, designated NROL-76. As is typical for NRO launches, coverage of the climb to orbit went only as far as first stage burnout. However, SpaceX still had plenty of first stage footage still to produce, as the stage returned to land back at the Cape. As a result of that and the favorable lighting conditions to view the rocket climbing away from the historic LC-39A complex, using the exceptional long-range tracking cameras available at KSC, this may be the most spectacular first stage flyback footage yet:
Cape Canaveral has a brand new zipline! But alas, it is not available to tourists. Not unless you’re a really, really, really rich tourist and have managed to book a ride on a CST-100 Starliner!
One of the requirements for a man-rated launch vehicle is some way to quickly escape the vehicle in case it’s about to go kablooie. Mercury and Gemini had no escape system, other than the vehicle’s own launch abort system (which in the case of Gemini, consisted of ejection seats that were believed to be nearly 100% certain to be fatal if used on the pad, due to the sidewise orientation of the vehicle before launch), other than riding the elevator back down and hoping really really hard. The first pad escape system that would save crews not yet in the vehicle or allow crews to safely egress during an abort was a super-fast elevator on the Saturn V launch umbilical tower that delivered the crews to a blockhouse under the pad, where they could survive for some time, long enough anyway for whatever was going on above to burn itself out and the fumes to dissipate. On Shuttle, things got a little spunkier, with the addition of the slidewire baskets that would let crews slide rapidly to safety — which would consist of several armored transports parked nearby, which they’d jump into and drive away as quickly as possible.
The slidewires were deemed more effective (and more reliable, being powered entirely by gravity) than the Apollo elevator, and so it is perhaps no surprise that ULA, in building a system to meet Boeing and NASA’s specifications, is opting for a wire again. Only instead of a set of baskets that can carry several crew apiece, this one is a zipline with a couple dozen single-person seats, enough to evacuate the crew and ground support personnel, and because they are individual, you just jump in it and go — you don’t have to wait.
But I gotta admit, part of me really likes the fact that this system isn’t being built by some stodgy old defense contractor, like most of the system. No, this one’s being built by a company that specializes in ziplines — Terra-Nova LLC. And it’s pretty much exactly the same system they build for tourist use at locations around the world. They’ve got extensive experience; from their perspective, this was actually a very small job….
Delta IV pulled off another flawless launch from Cape Canaveral today, placing the Wideband Global SATCOM-9 satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit. WGS-9 is a military commsat operated by the United States Air Force but jointly procured by five other nations: Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and New Zealand. This was not the first WGS satellite paid for by a foreign power; WGS-6 was contributed by Australia. And ground stations have been paid for partially by partner nations, who, again, receive bandwidth in proportion to their investment. USAF is moving towards launch of WGS-10 later this year, but that is expected to be the final element of the constellation, at least int the forseeable future.
This was the 35th flight of Delta IV, and the 108th successful Delta program launch in a row. This flew in the 5,4 configuration — 5 meter fairing, 4 solid rocket motors. Single-core Delta IV is expected to retire by the end of 2018, with only the Delta Heavy continuing on, alongside the Vulcan rocket that will be ULA’s next offering (intended to replace both Delta IV and Atlas V).
This morning, a Falcon 9 rocket roared into space from Kennedy Space Center’s LC-39A, the first commercial launch to lift off from this NASA launch facility. (Previous Florida launches of the Falcon 9 were from the neighboring Cape Canaveral Air Station, operated by the USAF.) Fittingly, this was still a NASA mission; the payload is the CRS-10 Dragon cargo mission to the International Space Station. But the next flight won’t be; the next flight will deliver the EchoStar 23 commercial commsat to geosynchronous transfer orbit.
LC-39A was originally built to support launches of the gigantic Saturn V for the Apollo mission, and so everything is proportionately gigantic on this pad. Falcon 9 is the smallest rocket ever to fly from it, but later it is planned to support the massive Falcon Heavy, a triple-core variant that will be the most powerful rocket in the world when it flies, and that is the real reason for using this pad.
Today’s mission was completely successful, including the first daylight shore landing of a Falcon 9 first stage. That stage landed on the existing SpaceX landing pad at Cape Canaveral. And there’s some great footage. 😉
And here is spectacular drone photography of the landing:
An Atlas V in its base 401 configuration placed the SBIRS GEO 3 military early-warning satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit this evening: