Great Day for SpaceX — Successful Launch, Successful Drone Ship Landing

Great Day for SpaceX — Successful Launch, Successful Drone Ship Landing

SpaceX accomplished not only a successful launch today, but its first successful landing of the Falcon 9 first stage on an autonomous drone ship out at sea.  Although the company had successfully returned a first stage to a landing site at Cape Canaveral, FL in December 2015, its prior attempts to land on a drone ship encountered one problem after another.  Almost eclipsed by the excitement of the landing was the primary objective of the launch — placing a Dragon spacecraft in orbit to deliver equipment and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).  Dragon should arrive there on Sunday.

SpaceX believes that the cost of launching anything into space can be sharply reduced by reusing the rockets.  Not everyone is convinced.  NASA’s space shuttle was mostly reusable, but its costs remained very high because refurbishing the rocket stages and engines for the next launch was very expensive and the number of launches per year was small, so costs could not be amortized over a large base.

SpaceX and other companies, like Blue Origin, which just flew the same New Shepard rocket for the third time, still believe in reusability, though.

Falcon 9 rockets are used to place spacecraft into orbit from Cape Canaveral, FL or Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.  SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk is testing landing the first stage either on land or an “autonomous spaceport drone ship” (ASDS) at sea.  After a series of initial tests to “land” on the ocean itself to determine if the landing legs would deploy and the engine would fire correctly, SpaceX was ready to try its first landing on an ASDS in January 2015.  

The company has two ASDS’s, whimsically named “Of Course I Still Love You” and “Just Read the Instructions.”   They are “drone ships,” not barges, because they have engines.  Barges do not.  They can operate with no one aboard, autonomously, which is important when landing a rocket on deck.

On SpaceX’s first attempt to land on an ASDS in January 2015, the fuel was exhausted too soon.   On the second attempt in April 2015, the landing was too hard.  The third time, in January 2016, it landed, but one of the four landing legs broke.  On the fourth attempt, in March 2016, again there was insufficient fuel, which SpaceX anticipated and it took efforts to dampen expectations in advance.

In December 2015, however, the company did land successfully at a pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the first time it was attempted.  That was a launch of 11 Orbcomm OG-2 satellites to low Earth orbit. 

Today, everything went very smoothly and SpaceX now has two successful landings under their belt — one on land, one at sea.

SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage after landing on ASDS Of Course I Still
Love You, April 8, 2016. Screenshot from live coverage.

Meanwhile, Dragon successfully reached orbit and is on its way to the ISS with about 7,000 pounds of supplies, equipment and scientific experiments.  It will arrive there on Sunday, April 10, and remain until May 11.  SpaceX’s U.S. competitor for launching cargo to the ISS is Orbital ATK’s Cygnus.  For the first time, a Dragon and a Cygnus will be attached to the ISS at the same time.  Cygnus arrived there two weeks ago (and a Russian Progress cargo ship docked last week).

Among the cargo on this Dragon mission is the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which will be attached to the ISS for two years to conduct tests of this innovative approach to building space habitat modules.

Dragon is the only ISS spacecraft that not only take cargo to the space station, but return it to Earth.  It lands in the Pacific using parachutes.  NASA uses it to return the results of scientific experiments and failed equipment that it wants to analyze.

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