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.
SpaceX had a successful launch of the Falcon 9 rocket in the middle of the night last night, and a successful landing back at the Cape:
The landing is awesome, of course, but this flight is extra important because it carries a second docking adapter after the first one was lost on the CRS-7 launch accident. Dragon is the only spacecraft capable of delivering the International Docking Adapters, in its roomy unpressurized trunk. This is a necessary step before the crewed missions can begin, currently likely to happen sometime next year.
The CRS-8 Dragon capsule that launched from Florida a month ago (setting into motion the historic first controlled sea landing of a rocket) has now returned to Earth. I haven’t found any video of the splashdown, but here’s its departure from Station:
It carried a lot of critical experiments up, and on the way down it’s carrying things like biological specimens, but the big deal for this flight was the BEAM it carried in its (now-discarded) unpressurized trunk compartment. The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module is currently mated to the aft port of the Tranquility node, but is not scheduled to be inflated until later this month. It isn’t really meant as a fully operational module, and for the start at least, crews are only planning to make brief excursions into the module, sealing it up when not in use. But if all goes well, Bigelow Aerospace plans for it to become the first of a whole family of orbiting space habitats.
The next Dragon capsule is scheduled to fly in late June. Its primary payload will replace what was lost on the CRS-7 launch failure: a docking adapter stored in the trunk section. Boeing is contracted to deliver two of those, and NASA is exercising an option to have them build a third out of flight spares to replace the one that was lost. NASA needs two docking adapters at Station so as to be able to host two commercial crew vehicles simultaneously, so the upcoming flight will be absolutely critical to the return of human spaceflight from US soil.
ISS has its first new room since Discovery installed the Leonardo PMM (previously MPLM) in February of 2011! Mind you, they can’t move into the new room yet; the module won’t be inflated and pressurized until May 26. To minimize risk, NASA wants to wait until traffic around the station is quiet. Right now, they’ve got a lot of visiting spacecraft: two Soyuz, two Progress, a Cygnus, and a Dragon. BEAM will ultimately add 16 cubic meters of habitable volume to the station.
This timelapse video from SpaceVids.tv shows the installation sequence, starting with activation of the aft Common Berthing Mechanism on the Tranquility module, to the SSRMS parking the DEXTRE robot so it would be free to grapple the BEAM, to extraction from Dragon’s trunk, to swinging it around into position, to a view from a camera inside the BEAM’s berthing mechanism, used for alignment purposes, so you can see it coming right in.