SpaceX on Track for 4:55 am EDT Launch Tomorrow

SpaceX on Track for 4:55 am EDT Launch Tomorrow

SpaceX’s launch of the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft is “go” for launch at 4:55 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) tomorrow from Cape Canaveral, FL.  NASA reports there is a 70 percent chance that the weather will be acceptable at launch time.

SpaceX will provide coverage beginning at 4:15 am.   NASA‘s coverage starts earlier, at 3:30 am.    (Follow us on Twitter @spcplcyonline.)

A lot is riding on the success of this mission, though NASA and SpaceX officials have tried to dampen expectations, reminding everyone that this is a test flight and tests sometimes go awry.  The flight is part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to facilitate the emergence of a “commercial cargo” capability where companies develop systems to take cargo to the ISS on a commercial basis rather than NASA developing the systems itself.  NASA is providing some, but not all, of the funding for SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. to develop commercial cargo systems and will buy services from them.  With the termination of the space shuttle program last year, NASA does not have its own ability to send cargo (or crews) to the ISS anymore.   Cargo can be sent only on Russian, European or Japanese spacecraft.   Only Russia can launch crews to the ISS.

Tomorrow’s launch is the second COTS test flight for SpaceX.  The first, in December 2010, successfully lofted a Dragon spacecraft into orbit and it safely reentered, landing in the ocean.  SpaceX planned three demonstration flights, but convinced NASA to combine the second and third, so if this mission achieves all of its objectives, SpaceX could begin offering services to NASA soon.  Orbital Sciences has not yet launched its Antares rocket or Cygnus spacecraft, but NASA hopes that service also will be available in the next year.   SpaceX has a head start on Orbital because Orbital replaced another company (Rocketplane Kistler) that failed early in the COTS program.

The first step for tomorrow’s mission is getting the Dragon spacecraft into orbit.   Assuming the Falcon 9 rocket performs that task successfully, the next step is berthing Dragon with the International Space Station (ISS) on Day 4 of the mission.   If that is successful, Dragon will remain at the ISS for about two weeks and then reenter and land in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of the United States.  A press kit with a detailed timeline is on the SpaceX website.

No living people are aboard, but ABC News reports that a canister with the ashes of 308 people, including James Doohan who played Scotty on the original Star Trek series, will rocket into space on the second stage of the Falcon 9.   A company named Celestis sells the opportunity to send people’s ashes into space and reportedly has a performance guarantee that if a launch fails, they will relaunch ashes that have been held in reserve for just such an eventuality.   Of the 308 remains that will be aboard this flight, 208 are reflights from a failed SpaceX launch in 2008 (of its Falcon 1 rocket), including those of NASA astronaut Gordon Cooper.

As noted, the canister containing the ashes is on the second stage of the Falcon 9, not in the Dragon capsule.   Dragon is loaded with supplies for the ISS crew.   Three new crewmembers just arrived at the ISS on Wednesday, joining three others who have been aboard for several months.   Dragon will maneuver itself close to the ISS and the ISS crew will use Canada’s robotic arm to grapple it and pull it into a docking port.

In the future, SpaceX hopes to use Dragon to launch people into space, but that step is several years away.  NASA is funding SpaceX and three other companies to develop “commercial crew” space transportation systems with the hope that at least two will be operating in the 2016-2017 time frame. 

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