The CRS-11 Dragon mission is now underway, the first with a reflown Dragon capsule. (The heatshield is new, as of course is the unpressurized trunk section and the solar panels, as these are discarded with each flight, burning up while the pressurized module returns to the Earth.) The Falcon 9 rocket was still brand-new, but the first stage will eventually be reused; it completed the fifth successful landing at Cape Canaveral.
This was the one hundredth launch from LC-39A.
Here’s the replay of the SpaceX webcast (jump ahead 16 minutes for the launch):
Yes, you heard that right. They have yet to launch their crewed spacecraft as far as the ISS, but this week they announced that two undisclosed wealthy individuals have approached them about riding a Dragon capsule, boosted by their soon-to-fly Falcon Heavy, in a trip around the Moon. (I’m betting they’re talking a lunar swingby mission, not an orbital mission.) They plan on conducting this mission by the end of 2018.
For perspective, there are only two flights of Falcon Heavy currently on the manifest (the demo launch and a USAF experimental mission, one this year and one the next), and the crewed Dragon isn’t set to fly to the ISS until the fourth quarter of 2018 as it is. (And the GAO recently expressed serious doubt about that even happening.) So this is pretty ambitious. Exciting, and very very cool, but certainly a stretch goal.
Who are the two individuals? SpaceX isn’t saying. They did, however, say they’d be happy to give NASA dibs on flying to the Moon aboard Dragon first — an announcement which came as a great shock to NASA, since they found out about all of this the same time the rest of us did.
This is sure to shake things up, and I’d not put odds on whether or not they’ll manage this. I do have to wonder whether they’re overextending themselves. They have put a lot of very ambitious challenges in front of themselves. From a program risk perspective, this doesn’t seem like a good idea. But if they pull it off . . . hoo boy. There’s quite a payoff in terms of bragging rights, and it’s definitely a strong step towards their ultimate goal: Mars.
The cargo trips to the ISS continue, with the CRS-10 Dragon arriving a day late (after waving off the first rendezvous due to faulty GPS data) and Progress MS-05 blasting off and returning the Progress capsule to flight after the unfortunate launch vehicle failure that destroyed the last one. Progress Ms-05 also capped off the venerable Soyuz-U, as it was the final flight of that rocket variant.
Dragon has been berthed at the nadir port of the Harmony node, and Progress MS-05 is en route to dock with the nadir port of the Pirs compartment.
The final Soyuz-U launch:
And a timelapse of the Dragon berthing:
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:
As part of routine preparations for the upcoming Dragon flight to the ISS, SpaceX has also passed a historic milestone: allowing the flame trench at LC-39A to taste fire again.
Ignition is around two minutes into the video. Several things to note in this video: the extra-large Falcon 9 strongback, designed to support the Falcon Heavy, the Shuttle-era hardware still resident (particularly the Fixed Service Structure and Rotating Service Structure, although both have been stripped of most of their equipment, as well as the huge Apollo-era water tower for the sound suppression system), and the distant white shape of the SpaceX Falcon 9 assembly building at LC-39A. Never before have rockets been assembled at LC-39A; the pad was built for the gigantic Saturn V, which was assembled in the VAB and then ponderously rolled to the pad, and then the same strategy was employed for the Space Shuttle program. But Falcon 9 is a much simpler vehicle, and does not require such a large assembly hall as the VAB.
The Falcon 9 hotfire test concluded successfully. The vehicle will be lowered and pulled into the assembly hall for attachment of the Dragon spacecraft. After returning to the pad with payload installed, Falcon 9 is slated to lift off February 18 on a mission to the ISS, returning LC-39A to service for the first time since 2011. SpaceX has additional flights already manifested for LC-39A; the next will be EchoStar 23 no earlier than February 28, and SES 10 sometime in March. The SES 10 launch will be closely watched, as it will feature the first reflown Falcon 9 core.
Just for fun reference, here’s the last flight from LC-39A:
The first of two International Docking Adapters (designated IDA-2 since IDA-1 was lost in the one and only Falcon 9 launch mishap to date) has, by now, been extracted from the trunk of the CRS-9 Dragon spacecraft and should be hovering about three feet away from the Pressurized Mating Adapter 2 (PMA-2) on the forward end of the ISS, secure in the grip of the SSRMS. It will stay there until Friday, when astronauts Jeff Williams and Kate Rubins will exit the Quest airlock and work to get the adapter properly installed. NASA has released this wonderful informative CGI video outlining the plan for Friday’s spacewalk.
If you want to watch it live, tune in to NASA TV (via cable, satellite, YouTube, the NASA TV website, or wherever else you can find a feed) on Friday. Live coverage starts at 6:30 AM EDT (10:30 UTC), and the actual spacewalk is scheduled to begin at 8:05 AM EDT.
Both of the cargo ships launched in the last week have now arrived at the ISS — Progress first, followed by Dragon. The crews at the station now have a lot of unpacking to do. Dragon carries some particularly important cargo: the first DNA sequencing system for the ISS, to facilitate more detailed study of DNA in space, allowing specimens to be studied without having to send them back to Earth first, and of course the first of two International Docking Adapters. Currently stowed in Dragon’s trunk, this will be attached to one of the two free Pressurized Mating Adapters, converting them from the old APAS system to a modernized system that will require less human interaction during docking.