Today was the scheduled liftoff day for the fifth X-37 mission (OTV-5), and the first aboard a Falcon 9. (X-37 was designed from the start to be compatible with almost any launch vehicle, including the Space Shuttle, but its first four launches were all aboard the Atlas V.) As a bonus, since SpaceX is still unable to use their original Florida launchpad, Cape Canaveral Air Station’s SLC-40, this launch used the pad they’re adapting for Falcon Heavy, Kennedy Space Center’s venerable LC-39A. So LC-39A got to launch another spaceplane after all. 😉 (LC-39A’s last spaceplane launch was STS-135, the final flight of the Space Shuttle program, just over six years ago.)
Coverage of the ascent stops with first stage separation, as normal for classified flights*, but since this was Falcon 9, we got to see coverage of the first stage continue all the way to touchdown back at the Cape. Now, SpaceX gets to scramble to safe it and stash it safely in a hangar in advance of Hurricane Irma.
*X-37 is not a classified spacecraft, but its missions are generally classified. This one does carry one unclassified payload, the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader, for the Air Force Research Laboratory. It will “test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipe technologies in the long duration space environment”. Satellites already use heat pipe technology to draw waste heat away from sensitive electronic components (since obviously fans don’t work for cooling a spacecraft computer), but this new technology will be lighter and cheaper. All the other payloads, as well as their quantity and the target orbit and any planned maneuvers, remain classified. But they are probably also experimental technologies, since X-37 offers a unique opportunity to test equipment for a long duration in space and recover it for extensive engineering analysis afterwards.
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:
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:
After the shocking loss of the last Falcon 9, the rocket roared well and truly back into business today. They had been slightly delayed by the much needed rains that have come to California, but today the weather was suitable and launch occurred on time and on target, with a successful barge recovery at sea of the first stage – the first from Vandenberg. The Jason-3 launch a year ago was the first attempt to recover a Falcon 9 in the Pacific; it successfully soft-landed, but one of the landing legs failed to lock allowing it to fall over and explode. This one was flawless, and the barge will return to shore in the next couple of days — I believe to San Diego, since that’s where SpaceX recovers their Dragons.
The payload is the first flight of the Iridium NEXT constellation, which uses a brand-new multi-satellite deployment system that appears to have worked flawlessly, deploying all ten spacecraft correctly into their high inclination orbit.
Ariane V completed another flawless mission from Kourou, French Guiana yesterday, placing into orbit Sky Muster 2 for Australia and GSAT 18 for India. Both are geosynchronous commsats, the mainstay of Ariane V’s customer base.
And also yesterday, Blue Origin completed the fifth flight of their New Shepherd reusable suborbital rocket. This flight did continue to test the rocket, but that wasn’t the main focus. This mission was an inflight abort test. The booster did not simulate an emergency; after the spacecraft separated, it continued merrily along its way (albeit at lower thrust to compensate for the loss of mass) and returned neatly to Earth on its own. The escape looked a bit, well, “blarg-tastic” is the word that came to mind for me, as it yawed around dramatically. I would bet that Blue Origin will be studying the data from sensors inside to make sure G-loads didn’t exceed human tolerance; the point of an escape isn’t to be comfy, but to be survivable. Nevertheless, this fifth flight is expected to be the final flight for this particular vehicle.
SpaceX test-fired one of their recovered boosters at their Hawthorne, TX test facility. Although it was tied down and didn’t go anywhere, they took it through a full-duration burn, as if it were actually carrying something up on the first leg of an orbital journey. And it’s so cool to see something so scorched and battle-scarred roaring to life again!
This particular stage will never fly again. This one was used on the JCAT 14 launch, and was determined to have hit a little too hard for them to be comfortable with its structural integrity. But the engines are still good, so they’re using those to validate the reusability of the Merlin engines prior to actually reusing them. Here’s what it looked the last time it underwent a full duration burn, almost three months ago:
On July 21, 2011, the Space Shuttle Atlantis rolled to stop at Kennedy Space Center for the very last time. If you want to relive that moment, here’s NASA’s STS-135 landing video. It’s half an hour long; skip ahead to 9 minutes to see the HUD video from the Orbiter, and the runway coming up for the night landing:
STS-135 was commanded by Chris Ferguson, who has since retired from NASA and now works for Boeing. He’s serving as program manager for the CST-100 Starliner program, and has dibs on the first CST-100 crewed flight; if he gets his way, he intends to retrieve the very same flag he left on the ISS during STS-135 five years ago.
Meanwhile, OV-104 Atlantis herself has been moved to form the centerpiece of a spectacular display at the KSC Visitor’s Center, where she is displayed with payload bay doors open, RMS reaching out across the room, as if in flight — forever.