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):
Falcon 9 blasted off from Vandenberg AFB in California this morning, flawlessly placing the Jason 3 ocean-height-monitoring satellite into orbit. The first stage then executed another attempted landing, the first from California. Since SpaceX does not yet have the environmental assessment complete for landing at Vandenberg, they used a barge again, and got closer still to nailing the ocean landing. This time, at least most of the rocket stayed on the barge. And it probably would have been successful had one of the landing legs not failed to lock properly. It’s unclear whether this failure was preexisting, or whether it happened due to a possible hard landing; apparently the seas were a bit rougher than predicted, so it’s possible the barge slammed into the rocket a little early. Here you can watch it launch out of the morning mists of the southern California coast:
Here’s the first stage, on the landing barge being taken back to shore:
In other news, the successfully landed first stage from the recent ORBCOMM launch was test-fired at Kennedy Space Center on the old LC-39A pad. The burn was good, although one of the nine engines showed some abnormal readings that might possibly be due to debris ingestion. They’re planning borescope inspections this week which should give a clearer answer. If it has ingested debris, that’s something they’ll need to address in order to achieve their reusability goals.
Falcon 9 stands atop its pad at Cape Canaveral, ready to lift off tomorrow (weather permitting), for the return-to-flight mission. This trip will feature the new, lengthened Falcon 9 core which will permit flights with heavier payloads or higher-energy orbits, and it may also feature something else: the first flyback return to land. The FAA has not yet cleared the rocket to attempt a landing on US soil, so they are prepping one of their ocean-going landing barges, but they hope to land on a pad they’ve constructed at the former SLC-13 (an old Atlas site decomissioned in the late 70s).
This would give them the edge back in the race against Blue Origin. The secretive company headed by Jeff Bezos surprised everyone recently by seizing the record for the first rocket to fly from the ground into space and then land intact under its own power at the launch site, reminding more casual observers that SpaceX’s real adversary may not be the old guard of ULA but Blue Origins, another startup which has made some very impressive advances. (Blue Origin has, for instance, managed the impressive feat of displacing Rocketdyne from contention for the US-built engine that will power Atlas V’s successor, Vulcan.) But if this flight is successful, it will seize the reusable rocket lead back from Blue Origin, by accomplishing the first landing of a rocket that has not only reached space but was part of an orbital mission (which means it has to travel much faster and further before it can return to its launch site).
So cross your fingers, and here’s to a successful flight! The payload for tomorrow’s flight will be a set of eleven Orbcomm satellites; the next scheduled flight will be the return to flight for Dragon. Tomorrow’s launch window opens at 8:29PM EST (7:29PM CST, 0129 GMT on Monday), and closes almost instantaneously, so weather will have to be perfect.