Monday, January 12, 2015

SpaceX Launch Success and Failure

Dragon (center) docked at the US Harmony module on the ISS. NASA pic.

SpaceX conducted another successful mission to send the unmanned Dragon cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station. The Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon blasted off from Cape Canaveral's  Launch Complex 40 in Florida, lifting off at 4:47 a.m. Eastern time. It was originally scheduled to launch last Tuesday, but a small mechanical problem. After a two and a half minute ascent, the first stage separated and the second stage propelled the Dragon into orbit.

Current configuration of spacecraft docked with the ISS. NASA illustration. Parked spaceships represent American (Dragon), European (ATV), and Russian (Progress) unmanned cargo ships and two Russian manned spacecraft (Soyuz).

The Dragon was carefully maneuvered through orbiting thrusters to rendezvous with the ISS, where astronauts used a robotic arm to grapple the craft and pull it to the docking hatch, where docking was achieved just after 6 a.m. Mountain time this morning. Astronauts will carefully equalize the pressures in the craft and the iSS and will later begin unloading cargo and supplies. Meanwhile, ground engineers from SpaceX will be checking out the craft's systems and reviewing flight performance. You can read a very detailed account of the launch and docking at

SpaceX illustration of the Falcon 9 first stage in powered descent.

Although the flight of the Dragon went well, the return of the Falcon 9 first stage did not end well. This flight was also an experiment by SpaceX, in which the first stage would slow descent and use landing engines to soft land on the pad of a specially constructed SpaceX recovery ship out in the Atlantic Ocean. SpaceX has had several successful test flights where the stage returned to a land based pad in Texas, extending landing legs and touching down softly on the pad. This was to be a first attempt to do so on the recovery ship. However, the stage made its approach a bit too fast and ended up being severely wrecked on the ship pad. SpaceX will analyze the attempt and make new corrections and try again at a later date.

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